Observations of Livermore’s Garaventa Hill Lawsuit Management

The City of Livermore had difficult choices to make

Lafferty Communities‘ attempt to develop Garaventa Hill into a housing tract began in 2011 and ended in 2022. The first step was for our City staff to issue a Notice of Preparation in 2011, which lead to a Draft EIR in 2012, a “Final” EIR in 2014, and then a “Reissued” final EIR in 2018. Upon the Council’s (now illegal) 2019 certification of the FEIR, a lawsuit was filed by residents which ultimately resulted in their Supreme Court victory.

Upon being “noticed” that a lawsuit would be filed, City staff had the responsibility to make recommendations to the Council. Legally, when a legislative body votes on a decision, they must stand by that decision in court no matter how regrettable the original vote might have turned out to be in hindsight. So, Staff was responsible for presenting options for the kind of defense case they would mount on behalf of Livermore residents, against Livermore residents. Though unfortunate and ironic, it is not an uncommon corner into which agencies can find themselves painted.

The best possible outcome would be for Livermore to lose the case, and thusly save The Hill. Public opposition to Lafferty Communities and concern for the health of the environment made for an attractive potential outcome – win by losing.

Three options to consider

  1. Concede the case and negotiate a costly compensatory arrangement with Lafferty Communities.
  2. Have the City Attorney prepare a reasonable case and argue it in a manner which satisfies the legal defense obligation but might not have the greatest chance of winning. Cost would be minimal. (Pro Tip #1: losing is winning on this issue).
  3. Make a side deal with Lafferty communities where they would manage the case, cost, and liability. (Pro Tip #2: winning is losing on this issue).

They chose option 3. The City would fight its residents in the most aggressive way at their disposal. Lafferty Communities was motivated by tens of millions in profit if they won the case, and were willing to finance a vigorous defense. City Staff thought this would be a good idea, as it absolved them from having to do any work. They also mistakenly thought they had a winning defense case.

The Trials

Livermore outsourced its defense to the discretion of Lafferty Communities. They hired the Buchalter Law Firm in San Francisco, with their attorney Doug Straus heading up the case. On the advice from CBG and others, the residents (“Save the Hill Group”) hired Greenfire Law to serve as plaintiff’s representative.

CBG was able to witness the trials in action. We were highly impressed with Mr. Straus’ performance and command of his various arguments. Basically, he really knew his stuff. Likewise, Greenfire’s Jessica Blome was every bit Straus’ equal, and based on the final result, superior.

Lafferty Communities was disadvantaged from the beginning. The property is more environmentally sensitive than the nearby Farber property, and it couldn’t even get and EIR. Livermore’s Council received some bad advice from Livermore’s City Attorney during the EIR process. The EIR also had fatal flaws, as Lamphier-Gregory (the company that produced it) left out some key research and findings related to preserving the property as a “No-Build” option. In the end, all things being equal, this case was lost from the start.

Conclusion

Greenfire was able to tease out the necessary facts of the law in order for the plaintiffs to prevail on the merits in all three courts where the case was heard. On this basis we don’t believe Council made a good decision to fight their own residents with everything they had. In hindsight, we hope they would agree. All parties would have been much better served by gracefully allowing the inevitable loss to transpire with far less drama. It would have saved Lafferty Communities time and money as well. The saddest part though, is the magnitude of mistrust created by Council’s desire to fight their own constituents tooth and nail. That’s not how good government is supposed to work.