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Neighbors file lawsuit over Debely renovations
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After pleas to stop the $2.8 million Joe Debely Stadium renovation project went unheard by two local government agencies, the Turlock Citizens Coalition has taken the fight to the legal arena.
The Turlock Citizens Coalition, comprised of neighbors to the stadium, filed a lawsuit on Christmas Eve to halt the project. Modesto attorney Richard Harriman, who represents the Turlock Citizens Coalition, expects defendants to be served today.  
“It is an improper use of money,” Harriman said. “The City of Turlock, the Turlock Redevelopment Agency and the Turlock Unified School District have not complied with the law. If they want to do this, they need to do it the right way.”
The 23-page lawsuit, which names the Turlock City Council, Turlock Redevelopment Agency and the Turlock Unified School District as defendants, requests that the Superior Court review and reverse the final decision or order that authorized Redevelopment Agency funds to be given to the Turlock Unified School District to renovate Joe Debely Stadium. The petitioners also request an administrative stay that would stop any expenditure of public funds until the final decision of the court.
The main point of contention for the Turlock Citizens Coalition is the TUSD Board of Trustees’ decision that the Joe Debely renovations were an exemption to the California Environmental Quality Act. Harriman said they should have done an environmental impact report to see what effect the project would have on the surrounding neighborhood.
“They are really trying to change Joe Debely in a neighborhood that doesn’t have the means to accommodate more frequent use,” Harriman said. “This is being done to increase the usage. That is why people change natural grass to artificial turf to get more use.”
At previous TUSD and Turlock City Council meetings, members of the Turlock Citizens Coalition voiced their concerns. At the Nov. 24 council meeting, over 16 upset residents of Turlock stood behind the podium and shared their disapproval for the Joe Debely project with their allotted three minutes to speak.
Lynne Gaiser-Surraille, one member of the Turlock Citizens Coalition, spoke of her efforts at the Nov. 24 council meeting of going door-to-door collecting signatures of people who oppose the project. She believes the conditions that the council had to find in order to move forward with the project, could not have been made. One of which is concerning the benefit of the project for the immediate neighborhood.   
“If you increase the use of the stadium, these neighborhood people are not going to have any parking at all,” Gaiser-Surraille said at the Nov. 24 council meeting. “… I’d like to make the statement that you’re actually blighting my neighborhood.”
At the Dec. 8 TUSD Board meeting, Harriman warned the trustees of potential litigation concerning the project, but the board voted to move forward and approved the project.
“I suggest you look into these items to protect yourselves over potential litigation,” Harriman told the board of trustees during the public comment session at the Dec. 8 TUSD meeting.
According to TUSD facilities planner Roger Smith, the Joe Debely Stadium renovations don’t violate CEQA under three categorical exemptions, which are under the Civic Center Act regarding the stadium being used for public use.
“I believe that the proposed renovations to the stadium, which will not increase the seating capacity of the stadium, but simply make the stadium ADA compliant and accessible to the physically disabled, add bathrooms, and improve the playing surface, will ultimately be a benefit to the community and the neighborhood,” said Frank Lima, TUSD board of trustees president.
Along with CEQA violations, the Turlock Citizens Coalition also contends that the stadium renovations do not qualify as a legal Redevelopment Agency project. In order to move forward with the project, the council had to find that the renovation would be of benefit to the immediate neighborhood in which the project is located, and that the RDA funding would assist in the elimination of one or more blighting conditions in the area.
At the Nov. 24 RDA meeting, Councilwoman Mary Jackson cast the lone dissenting vote in the 3-1 decision, stating she could not make the four findings necessary to move the project forward.
“In my opinion, Joe Debely Stadium is not a RDA legal project,” Jackson said on Nov. 24. “I believe RDA money should be used to bring jobs and industry to our community.”
The total project, as of the Dec. 8 TUSD meeting, will include an all-weather track, artificial turf football field, accessible pathways to and around the stadium, handicap stalls in the restroom facilities, ramps and seating for handicap seating to be ADA compliant, an assistive listening system, accessible snack bar windows, a new main entrance with a ticket booth, and a new restroom on the visitor’s side.
“We support a stadium that gives our children everything they need, but with all the issues examined,” said Turlock Citizens Coalition member Dana Vaughan.
To contact Maegan Martens, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2015.