OAKLAND -- Two environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against the city and the Oakland Zoo, trying to stop the zoo's plans to expand by 54 acres into undeveloped Knowland Park to build a veterinary hospital, new animal exhibit, camping area and educational center.
The California Native Plant Society and Friends of Knowland Park on Thursday filed the lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court. The suit argues there are flaws in the environmental review process for the zoo's planned 17,000-square-foot veterinary hospital; the California Trails exhibit featuring condors, mountain lions and grizzly bears; an aerial gondola; an overnight camping area; and a center.
The suit says the City Council violated the California Environmental Quality Act and State Planning and Zoning Law when it approved the development plan last month.
Environmentalists say they want to protect the roaming foxes and coyotes, as well as the Alameda whipsnake, a threatened species, and rare native plants such as the bristly leptosiphon and purple needlegrass.
"It's ironic that the Oakland Zoo claims to stand for conservation," said Ruth Malone, co-chairwoman of the Friends of Knowland Park. "The zoo's unwillingness to go through a full environmental review process for this project is just shocking. Since the City Council shirked its duty to analyze reasonable alternatives, we were left with no options but to sue to get them to follow the law."
The zoo completed the required environmental review under the law, but the lawsuit calls for the city to mandate that the zoo complete a full environmental impact report before expansion moves forward. The suit requests a temporary restraining order and injunction that would require the zoo to halt construction on the veterinary hospital, which started last week.
The development plan was approved in 1998, but because it was amended, it had to again go before the Planning Commission, which approved it in May in a 3-1 vote. Opponents filed an appeal, which was shot down in a unanimous vote by the Oakland City Council on June 21. The lawsuit says the zoo significantly changed its development plans since they were approved by the council 13 years ago.
Oakland Zoo expansion project director Nik Dehejia said the zoo worked with neighbors and environmentalists over many years and through several revision. He said the zoo incorporated modifications to the project, including habitat enhancement, scaled-back perimeter fence and public access walking path.
"Funds used by the zoo to defend this project in court are better used in caring for our animals and delivering educational programs to our children. The costs to the zoo to halt this project are incalculable," Dehejia said.
What's more, he said, the project will bring money and jobs to the city and county. A 2009 report by the East Bay Economic Development Alliance, completed for the zoo without cost, says the project is expected to bring about $111 million into the city and county over the next few years and employ roughly 200 workers. It estimated 30 to 60 permanent and temporary jobs will be created at the zoo.