MODESTO — California court officials have exempted themselves from laws requiring that they seek public comment on the environmental study theyve done for the proposed downtown Modesto courthouse project, The Bee learned Wednesday.
State and local officials have found ways to keep virtually every decision secret as they pursue plans to buy the block between Ninth and 10th streets and G and H streets for a $278 million courthouse.
The massive government building would be the most expensive public works project in Stanislaus County history, but the public has had no say in where or what should be built.
In response to a Bee inquiry, court officials revealed Wednesday that theyve approved a notice of exemption to the California Environmental Quality Act. The exemption means they dont have to distribute an environmental report about that downtown block or give the public a chance to comment on it.
That action was taken Aug. 29, but the formal paperwork hasnt been published, according to a spokesperson for the state court system.
That exemption runs counter to the procedures state officials had said they were following for the acquisition of land for a Modesto courthouse. The state courts website, for example, assured that the CEQA report would be distributed for comment and there would be a public meeting about it.
But Keby Boyer, spokesperson for the states Administrative Office of the Courts, said that after conducting a phase two CEQA study, no problems were found, so it was determined there was no need for public involvement.
AOC staff analyzed aesthetic, air quality, biological, cultural resources, hazardous materials, noise, traffic and water quality environmental issues for the Judicial Council of Californias proposed acquisition of project site, demolition of existing structures and infrastructure, construction of a new courthouse, and operation of the new (Modesto courthouse), Boyer explained in an email. For all issues, the analysis indicated that the courthouse projects impacts will be less than significant and that there are no unusual circumstances at the site that may have a significant effect on the environment.
So even though that block has been occupied for more than a century and has included businesses such as a dry cleaners and a Greyhound bus station Boyer said the state is confident no contamination will be found there.
We dont want to mess with any environmental problems, Boyer said. But everything looks good, and were free to move ahead.
Government deals to buy that land apparently are moving ahead behind closed doors.
Paul Draper, who until Tuesday was negotiating those land purchases for the city of Modesto, said the city is nearly ready to submit offers to private property owners.
Draper, however, dropped out of the deal this week, citing recent negative publicity as his reason. The Bee last week ran a story noting that Draper does not have a real estate license. The City Council had planned to pay him a 3 percent commission for handling the real estate deal, but a real estate license is required to negotiate land deals.
The proposed transaction is a complicated one. The city plans to purchase the six privately owned parcels on the block, then bundle them with the five parcels the city already owns there. The city then intends to sell the block to the state for the courthouse.
The city also has announced vague plans about moving all the utility lines out of the alley there and possibly demolishing all the buildings on the block before reselling to the state.
Exactly who would pay for all that work has not been explained. Modesto officials have said the best-case scenario is that the city would break even on the deal.
State officials have forbidden the court system from paying more for the land than its market value.
But there is speculation that Modesto council members are considering a plan to pay the blocks private landowners more than their land is worth to assure the deal goes through. To cover that extra cost, the council reportedly is considering using some of the funds the state will pay for the city-owned land on that block. The city has declined to comment on the matter, claiming it is part of ongoing negotiations.
It has been estimated that the citys property there is worth about $1 million.
Whats actually happening with the courthouse land deal isnt known because everything has been done behind closed doors.
Now that Draper has dropped out of the negotiations, the blocks largest private landowner Greg Reed said he wants to help the deal go through.
Publicity, whether good or bad, sure has the ability to stifle progress, even when the majoritys intentions are genuine, Reed told The Bee on Wednesday. As a landowner, and an owner/partner of ReMax Real Estate, I will help with the progress of this project in any manner that I can to ensure it continues.
Another of the blocks landowners, Curtis Mote, said he wasnt sure who would represent him now that Draper has pulled out. Regarding how much he wants for his property, Mote said: I dont know whats fair. He said he has not been privy to the details of the negotiations.
Modesto City Manager Greg Nyhoff said the city is deciding what to do without Draper. He said his staff will over the next couple weeks evaluate our options.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2196.