Scott Holmes, the project engineer for Big Wave and a member of the board of directors for the project’s “wellness center” defended the county’s decision to enlist his help in responding to public comments on his own project.
“The current plan of completing the final EIR is very similar to the previous plan working with CAJA,” says Holmes. “CAJA” is Christopher A. Joseph and Associates, the county’s consultant hired to prepare the environmental evaluation.
The”EIR,” an environmental impact report, is a required step in gaining county approval of the Big Wave project. The report is currently in draft form and the county recently finished soliciting public comment on the draft. It is these comments–about two hundred and fifty of them–that have initiated this most recent controversy in a project already familiar with controversy.
According to Jim Eggemeyer, the interim director of the San Mateo County Planning and Building Department, the consultant has refused to make a formal response to the questions since there are so many more responses than expected. Big Wave refuses to pay the consultant additional money since they feel the consultant should have expected a large number of comments and since they have already paid the consultant more than originally budgeted.
“We have already paid double the original estimate. We had an agreement with the County and we are sticking with it,” says Holmes.
In the county planning process an applicant pays for their own EIR but they do not pay the consultant directly. Instead they pay the county which independently selects a consultant. The county then acts as a “middleman” between the applicant and the environmental consultant. This arrangement is said to help prevent undue influence on the consultant by the applicant.
The new process, without the participation of the consultant, will focus on the questions that Holmes and the county feel can be addressed by information already included in the draft environmental report. As Holmes explains, “As the technical person most familiar with the project, the consultant for the DEIR [i.e. the draft EIR] has already sent me the more technical letters [and] comments expecting responses. This is fairly common in the EIR process. Once they received my responses, they would edit the information in a manner they felt was appropriate. They would also organize the responses so that similar questions could be referenced to each other.”
He estimates that he will be supplying answers to ten or fifteen letters.
“The only difference,” between the old process with the consultant and the new process without, “is that I will have to help more in the organization of the document. This is also the case for the County. They will have to expend considerably more time and effort to make sure their review is thorough and the final document is professionally organized. ”
Holmes will be performing this work at no fee to Big Wave or the county and will remain, for the time being, on the board of the Big Wave Wellness Center. Referring to his board seat, Holmes says, “I am comfortable in continuing this because my primary goal is to get the Wellness Center completed. My secondary goal is to have strong environmental features built into the process so that the environmental aspects of the site can be improved.”
Holmes takes pains to emphasize that what he writes will not be automatically published in the final EIR. “While Big Wave will contribute first round responses and organization of the document,” he says, “the County will have final review and authority over every aspect of the final document…all information provided by Big Wave [will] go through a ‘filter’ and review process, as the County will have final review and authority over every aspect of the final document.”