In the morning rush hour, vehicles back up on Bouquet Canyon and Soledad Canyon roads in the far northern Los Angeles county suburbs known as Canyon Country. Many miles to the south, the Ventura Freeway is packed as subdivisions empty their commuters into a highway strained far beyond its capacity.
More than any speech, clearer than a television commercial, these scenes from everyday life in suburban Los Angeles county illustrate a dominant issue in next Tuesday’s election contest between Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and challenger Baxter Ward.
The issue is residential and commercial growth and the resulting traffic jams. Antonovich, supervisor since 1980, and Ward, who held the job from 1972 to 1980, attack each other as they campaign in the huge 5th Supervisorial District, which contains most of the county’s yet-undeveloped land.
The Times examined the development records of both men. The study found that Ward, in his eight years, despite the growth-control emphasis of his present campaign, was no slow-growth advocate. Ward approved considerable development in his years on the board.
But records and interviews also show that Antonovich has been much more supportive of the building industry than Ward and that he has exceeded Ward in supporting residential and commercial developments that varied from the county General Plan.
Blame Each Other
Both blame each other for what all sides concede is heavy traffic caused by subdivision construction.
In a campaign display titled, “Ward’s Planning Legacy,” Antonovich charged that his opponent supported legislation permitting urban sprawl, made it easier for developers to get permission to exceed county zoning limits and pushed through approval of “favored projects” in his last days in office.
Ward said Antonovich has allowed large campaign contributors to build residential subdivisions beyond the limits of the county General Plan.
“How many major development proposals has he approved without receiving campaign contributions?” Ward asked at a breakfast debate in Encino. “His philosophy is to give them (developers) everything they want.”
The controversy centers on two areas of the 5th District, which includes part of the Santa Monica Mountains, the San Fernando Valley and part of the San Gabriel Valley. The two areas are the Calabasas and Las Virgenes portions of the Santa Monica Mountains and the canyons, hills, valleys and high desert of the northern county around the Santa Clarita Valley, including Saugus, Newhall and Canyon Country.
Much of this land is not within the boundaries of cities. In unincorporated territory, land-use decisions are made by the five-member Board of Supervisors. Under board practice, a supervisor is responsible for all land-use decisions in his district, with his colleagues generally ratifying his decisions.
Both areas are experiencing great population growth. The Santa Monica Mountains, which had 58,100 residents in 1984, will grow to 123,100 in 2010, according to an estimate of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, the Southland’s major regional government planning organization. The Santa Clarita Valley’s population, 89,200 in 1984, is predicted to reach 294,500.
In his eight years on the board, Ward’s freedom to approve subdivisions was restricted by a court order. The Center for Law in the Public Interest, representing homeowners and other community groups, had gone to court to block implementation of a county General Plan that it said gave full reign to development. A court order placed restrictions on development until the supervisors approved a plan satisfactory to the judge, David Thomas, which was not done until 1980.
In addition, county officials said, housing construction demand was limited during much of Ward’s term by high interest rates.
Nevertheless, Antonovich said, Ward approved about 90% of the developments submitted to him--about the same number as approved by Antonovich. Ward does not dispute this figure.
In addition, Antonovich noted, Ward voted for a version of the county General Plan turned down by the court as overly generous to developers. He also approved four developments on the last day of his term, to which Antonovich objected.
One of those, emphasized by Antonovich now, was Ward’s decision to allow construction of about 500 moderately priced townhouses in north Las Virgenes Canyon, running south from the Ventura Freeway. In doing that in 1980, Ward overruled his appointee on the Regional Planning Commission, Carolyn Llewellyn, a slow-growth proponent who had opposed the development. The commission itself, which makes planning recommendations to the Board of Supervisors, had favored the development.
On that day, Ward also supported increasing the size of three other developments, one in the Santa Monica Mountains and two in the northern county.
During Antonovich’s term, interest rates dropped, and building and population increased. In addition, the supervisors finally approved a General Plan satisfactory to the court.
Pressure for new developments increased. Developers asked for approval of amendments to the General Plan that would have increased the number of homes they could build.
This year, the county Planning Department reported that 31 amendments were awaiting approval for the Santa Clarita Valley alone that would permit 32,846 dwelling units above General Plan restrictions.
Subsequently, the Planning Department has held up approvals of such General Plan amendments. But in 1985 and 1986, before the report, county records show that Antonovich pushed through major developments above General Plan limits in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Among them: An increase from an allowed 402 units to 1,751 on Seco Canyon Road; from 305 to 1,595 units near Valencia Boulevard; from 0 to 930 on Soledad Canyon Road and from 0 to 305 in the same general area; from five to 1,955 on the east side of Sierra Highway, near the Santa Clarita River, and from 173 to 1,073 west of the Golden State Freeway.
Ward has also said that developers who were permitted to build over General Plan limits have given substantial campaign contributions to Antonovich. An examination of county records and a Times computer study of contributions confirms this.
For example in the Santa Monica Mountains, these land development firms were permitted to exceed General Plan limits and also contributed to Antonovich (contributions are from 1984-88):
Shappell Industries, $31,175; Baldwin Builders, $16,350; Currey Riach, $20,905; Engineering Technology, $16,755; Brian Heller, $5,155; Lawrence Dinovitz, $8,850; John Vidovich, $5,000;
Size of Projects
Antonovich said he had insisted that some contributors reduce the size of their projects. Last week, for example, he appeared with homeowners at a press conference in the Calabasas area to announce that he wanted a major Baldwin Builders project scaled down.
He said contributions do not influence his decisions.
“People who contribute to my campaign are supporting my philosophy,” he said.
For his part, Ward acknowledges supporting General Plan amendments that permitted more development during his eight years on the board.
“Everything in moderation,” he said.
But he said of Antonovich’s amendments: “These are massive changes. I never had anything like that.”