Yolo County files suit over planned Indian Health Service treatment center

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By ANNE TERNUS-BELLAMY/McNaughton Newspapers

Yolo County has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Indian Health Service over a youth regional treatment facility on County Road 31, just a few miles east of Winters.

The federal agency plans to break ground on the 32-bed treatment center this summer, providing culturally appropriate substance-abuse treatment to American Indian and Alaska-native youths on 12 acres of D-Q University, a two-year tribal college that stopped offering classes in 2005.

Since the treatment center was first proposed seven years ago, county supervisors repeatedly have expressed concerns about flooding and drainage in that area as well as loss of agricultural land.

But concern has been greatest over road safety, given the proposed facility’s location near a sharp curve in Road 31, a two-lane road between Davis and Winters.

In a letter to the Indian Health Service two years ago, the board contended that drivers on Road 31 likely would be unaware of cars stopped in the main traffic lane waiting to turn left into the center immediately after the curve.

“In addition, County Road 31 is east-west facing, meaning that those traveling eastbound in the morning can be blinded by the rising sun … unable to see cars stopped in the road wanting to turn into the facility,” the board wrote.

The estimated 70 employees who will be working at the facility — not to mention other visitors to the center — would add 180 trips per day, the letter said, and those trips “so close to the County Road 31 curve (are) likely to have an impact on traffic and increase accidents.”

Indeed, a traffic safety study completed last year recommended a left-turn lane for vehicles entering the facility from the eastbound lane of Road 31 as well as a right-turn pocket. The study found there would be an increased risk of rear-end collisions and T-bone crashes when drivers are entering or leaving the facility without those road improvements.

However, funding for safety improvements to Road 31 was not included in congressional appropriations for the treatment center when it was approved several years ago and Congress is unlikely to appropriate any more funds, IHS representatives have told county supervisors.

With the Indian Health Service planning to move ahead with construction without road improvements, the county filed suit in federal court on Feb. 9, citing the agency’s “brazen disregard of the safety of Native American youth receiving treatment at the facility, IHS’s staff and the public.”

The county argues that the Indian Health Service is violating the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to mitigate the road hazard.

“IHS has justified its failure to complete a lawful NEPA process on the basis that it supposedly cannot build improvements needed to address the known traffic hazards due to restrictions imposed by the congressional appropriation for the project,” the lawsuit states.

However, the county argued, NEPA does not excuse federal agencies from performing a full environmental review because it believes the impacts cannot be mitigated or avoided and other youth regional treatment centers have included off-site street improvements like that requested in Yolo County “based on the same or similar appropriation.”

County supervisors repeatedly have expressed support for locating the treatment facility in Yolo County, but repeatedly have urged the Indian Health Service to mitigate their concerns. Because the treatment facility is a federal project on federal land, local and state zoning and environmental laws don’t apply, limiting the county’s authority over the project.

Nevertheless, at a public hearing on the proposed treatment facility last summer, county supervisors expressed their opposition to the project unless the road improvements take place.

“We have a serious public safety issue which is life and death if there are accidents and, in my view, the facility should not be built if that’s not addressed,” Supervisor Jim Provenza of Davis said at the time.

Supervisor Don Saylor of Davis, who represents the Winters area, concurred, saying last summer that the county appreciates both the mission of the youth treatment facility as well as other benefits — including 70 new jobs in Yolo County – but added that “I couldn’t in good conscience just be supportive at this point.”

“I don’t think Yolo County residents would allow us to say, ‘Let’s just proceed,’” Saylor added.

Saylor reiterated that sentiment on Wednesday.

“The county is supportive of this much-needed treatment facility and would be proud to have the facility located in Yolo County,” he said. “But the Indian Health Service chose a site with significant constraints.

“If the Indian Health Service refuses to build adequate safety measures, then we need to protect the safety of children being treated at the facility, the staff members working there and everyone who uses the road.

“Providing safe access to the site is a necessary and appropriate cost. Public safety cannot be an afterthought.”

Now the county is turning to the courts for relief, and county supervisors are not alone in their efforts.

A joint letter from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, sent in December to the Indian Health Service also highlighted traffic safety concerns related to the project and requested that the IHS seek additional funding to pay for a left-hand turn lane on Road 31.

“We urge you not to risk serious injury or a fatality by declining to seek funding for this improvement,” the letter said. “If you decide to build the center without providing the left-hand turn lane to safely access it, we would request an explanation for your decision.”

Meanwhile, the lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court seeks an order enjoining the Indian Health Service from constructing the treatment center until safety hazards are fully addressed.

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