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Santa Rosa is being sued for allowing an asphalt plant to add three massive storage silos without requiring a report analyzing the environmental impacts.

Citizens for Safe Neighborhoods filed its suit in Sonoma County Superior Court last month challenging the City Council's approval June 19 of a permit for the Bodean Company project.

The group, made up mostly of residents who live in the West End neighborhood near the Maxwell Drive plant, claims the city twisted local zoning and environmental rules to approve the project.

It's asking the court to void the permit and require an environmental impact report.

"We have an issue with a company expanding a non-conforming use that's surrounded by homes, families, schools and parks," said Allen Thomas, a resident of the West End Neighborhood and Historic District and former city planning commissioner.

At the heart of the debate is whether the three proposed 82-foot silos and related equipment represent an expansion of the use on the 6.5-acre site, which has been used for similar activities since the 1950s.

Bodean claims the $1.5 million project won't increase the production capacity, but would help it operate more efficiently.

Critics note the company's application for a new permit from the Bay Area Regional Air Quality Management District proposes an annual production limit of 759,000 tons, which they call a threefold increase over 2011 levels.

City staff recommended approval of the permit largely because the silos don't actually allow the plant to produce any more asphalt, just store more of it. The heart of the operation, the batch plant, still will be able to produce only about 300 tons per hour.

Because the production capacity won't be increasing, city staff concluded that other impacts such as noise, dust and traffic weren't likely to increase, either. It found that the new equipment would allow the plant to operate more efficiently, thereby reducing energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and other neighborhood impacts.

The suit claims the city improperly approved the project as a "minor conditional use permit." The height of the towers alone — 27 feet over the 55-foot height limit for buildings — should have triggered greater review, the suit claims. It notes that former city planner Joel Galbraith concluded in 2010 that the height of the towers would require a major conditional use permit.

The suit also claims that the city improperly determined the project was exempt from California Environmental Quality Act requirements because it was a "minor alteration of an existing facility" and "replacement of an existing structure." The suit questions both conclusions, noting that the new equipment isn't replacing the existing silo, but augmenting it.

Thomas said he doesn't understand why the company is so resistant to an environmental report.

"If the Bodean Company is such a stalwart, environmentally friendly, community minded company, why would they not be willing to produce an EIR that would study the effects of things like smoke, emissions, dust and traffic? It's our contention that they are hiding something," Thomas said.

But Bodean general manager Bill Williams said the West End neighborhood isn't getting the facts about the environmental benefits of the project.

"The neighbors need to understand what the benefits of this project will be and how Allen Thomas is actually preventing that from moving forward in a timely manner," Williams said.

He estimates the lawsuit could delay the project six months to a year. The company will have to pay the legal fees to defend the city's actions.

City Attorney Caroline Fowler said the suit is without merit because "all appropriate steps were followed in the approval process."

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.