Double whammy hits proposed Tulare cheese plant

An artist’s rendering of the CaliCheese plant planned for Tulare that could hire up to 200 people. The project has been challenged by a death as well as a now-required environmental study.An artist’s rendering of the CaliCheese plant planned for Tulare that could hire up to 200 people. The project has been challenged by a death as well as a now-required environmental study.Supporters of more economic development in Tulare suffered a set back in recent weeks as the start-up cheese maker CaliCheese, which expects to hire 200 employees, was hit by a double whammy.

About a month ago the president of the company, Jeff Lee, became ill with breathing problems while staying in Tulare County, was seen at Kaweah Delta and flown to a Los Angeles hospital, where he later died. “It was a tragic irony on the eve of seeing his dream come true,” said Robert Moultrie, a friend and fellow investor in the project who will now be spearheading it

At the same time, CaliCheese faced a June 30 deadline to buy 60 acres owned by the City of Tulare near the wastewater plant but was not ready to complete the purchase quite yet, Moultrie said. “We needed a few more months but the city said they could not extend the conditional use permit,” he added.

Pressure from attorneys representing the unincorporated Matheny Tract community near the project site may have been a factor.

Ashley Werner, an attorney with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, is representing Matheny Tract residents in regards to the CaliCheese project.

The city recently told Moultrie the cheese project they had previously deemed to be properly backed by a 2008 environmental impact report that is still in place could no longer be covered. They would now have to do a new one.

Earlier this year, city attorney Martin Koczanowicz defended the original ruling by the then city planning chief Mark Kielty that the proposed cheese plant could use the EIR approved for a meat plant on the same property.

Koczanowicz wrote in February that, “the potential impacts are far less than those associated with the meat processing plant.”

The city attorney was responding to a letter from a Matheny Tract attorney that suggested the 2008 EIR was “inadequate” because it was approved for a beef plant — a project that after years of litigation was finally settled only to fall flat, the owner claiming that the long delay had killed his financing.

Moultrie said after hearing from the city they have agreed to do a new EIR “even though the traffic issues, water use, sewage, noise and odor impacts are far less.”

“We believe this will only set us back about 5 months,” said Moultrie, who added that he has “absolute confidence” the $350 million CaliCheese project will be funded.

He said the new EIR, already being worked on, should be complete by December 4. That would allow the big project to start construction in the first quarter of 2015.

In the event of a lawsuit, the project that could be delayed with unknown consequences. The irony is not lost that a small, impoverished community of 220 homes could halt a development project that could provide the jobs that would permanently lift hundreds of local residents out of poverty. From Matheny Tract — about a mile away — they could walk to work. The city has an unemployment rate of 13 percent and Matheny Tract’s rate is likely much higher.

California Rural Legal Assistance, representing Matheny Tract residents, pushed to halt the annexation of industrial park land (including this land) into the city on the south end of town insisting the city first annex the Matheny Tract. The annexation could seemingly accomplish all the upgrades in infrastructure that the place lacks.

But to CRLA’s surprise, Matheny Tract residents did not want to be annexed preferring to keep their rural rules yet wanting city services. CRLA then dropped objections to the annexation.

Tulare appears to be on the radar of private and public interest lawyers who have successfully stopped major development projects in this town in recent years, including the Tulare Motorsports project, the years of litigation against the beef plant brought forward by a competitor and now the threat to delay the CaliCheese plant unless demands are met.

CRLA maintains the low-income community, without good water, sewer or streetlights, has only moved forward by pressing Tulare city and county for help.

That is what happened with CRLA, and another job producing project, Colony Energy, which is looking to buy land also near the wastewater treatment plant.

They want to build an enclosed digester to make biogas from manure and food waste. The bio-methane will be used by the transportation industry, replacing 5,000 gallons per day of diesel fuel and cutting greenhouse gases. Instead of methane from nearby dairy farms going into the already smoggy atmosphere, the emissions will be captured.

CRLA extracted an agreement from Newport-based Colony Energy in 2012 in which the company would pay for streetlights for Matheny Tract as well as 10 years of their power bill. The $25 million project is still moving forward in Tulare, say sources, but has been delayed. CRLA did drop plans to demand an EIR.

But now the city will require CaliCheese to pay for a new EIR, opening the door under California environmental law for CRLA to comment and later sue if they want.