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Westlake Open Space Imperiled by an Oversight

Times Staff Writer

The former mayor of Westlake Village is trying to use a loophole in the city’s general plan to build houses on a parcel of land that was supposed to be preserved as open space.

John H. McDonough--who decided not to seek reelection in 1987 after five years on the City Council--is president and chief agent of North Ranch Gateway, a corporation trying to develop 33 acres of open land in the Westlake Canyon Oaks housing development.

The land was supposed to be protected as open space under an agreement with the original developer of the subdivision, said Bob Theobald, Westlake Village planning director. But through an apparent oversight when the county’s general plan was rewritten in the late 1970s, the revised document did not mention the agreement.

County Plan Adopted

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When Westlake Village incorporated in 1982, the city adopted the county general plan for the community and never noticed the oversight, Theobald said.

Now, residents of the subdivision fear that the former mayor’s lingering influence at City Hall could lead to development of the property.

“How can a man who’s been mayor of the city say, ‘This is designated open space. Too bad,’ ” said Wanda Gleason, board member for the Westlake Canyon Oaks Homeowners Assn. “To me that’s a conflict-of-interest sort of thing.”

Westlake Canyon Oaks is a tract of more than 200 homes built in northeast Westlake Village beginning in 1978.

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As a condition of county approval to build the homes, developer Ray Watt had to promise to leave two parcels of open space--one of about 110 hilly acres that later was deeded to the homeowner association, and another 33-acre lot that Gleason described as “just wild open space--there’s deer that come down and drink and coyotes and wildlife--which is one of the reasons that we all bought here.”

Engineers Questioned

Residents learned that the 33 acres had been sold to North Ranch Gateway when they questioned engineers who were taking photographs of the land last month, Gleason said. Title company records show the property changed hands in January.

McDonough, a Westwood plumbing contractor, referred all questions Monday to one of his partners in the corporation, Richard J. Barich, a real estate lawyer and developer. Barich is the company’s secretary, and Robert Bogle, a real estate broker, is its chief financial officer.

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Barich said neither McDonough’s influence at City Hall nor his inside knowledge had anything to do with the decision to purchase the property.

“I’ve been buying land and doing things like this for some 30 years,” he said. Barich said he discovered the oversight while reviewing 17 pages of title documents before he bought the land.

Planning Director Theobald said North Ranch Gateway representatives first questioned him in the spring about the potential for building homes. At first he told them that by law, they could not even apply to change the zoning to residential because the city owned residential development rights on the land.

Theobald worked for Los Angeles County’s Department of Regional Planning before coming to Westlake Village in 1985, and he said he and his county colleagues recalled that developer Watt had been asked to sign over development rights on the 33 acres to the county. When the city incorporated, he said, everyone assumed those rights transferred.

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It was not until North Ranch Gateway attorneys insisted that the city review the general plan maps that Theobald learned those rights were not spelled out.

“As it turns out, we do not have that sort of interest in the property,” he said. “Yes, we do have to accept an application, but we do not have to approve it.”

Theobald said it would be premature to guess at his recommendation on an application from North Ranch Gateway, but he said the Planning Department has worked hard to protect the green space laid out before incorporation.

And, he said, “the City Council, in every instance I’ve been involved with, has supported the Planning Department recommendation.” Nearly half of the city’s 5.6 square miles is designated as open space.

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No formal application to change the land’s zoning for development has been filed with the city, but Barich said one could be completed in as few as six weeks.

Although engineers still are evaluating the site’s potential for development, he said the company hopes to build a “very high-quality, high-end” project. Lots could range from half an acre to an acre, he said.

But Barich also said he recognizes that the inexpensive purchase price--listed by title companies as $150,000 but described by Barich as “more than that"--reflected the risk that the City Council may never allow development there.


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