Builder Turns to Legislature Again to Push Project Through : Development: Opponents of the Santa Monica Mountains proposal call the attempt special-interest legislation and say it is meant to circumvent the local planning process.


A developer trying to revive expired building rights in a prime location in the Santa Monica Mountains has succeeded in having a state Assembly bill amended to address a controversy-laden housing project near Mandeville and Mission canyons.

If adopted, the amendment would restore an 11-year-old tentative tract map for property owned by Eastport Associates. The city of Los Angeles contends that the tract map expired in 1987 after several extensions. The disputed tract map would allow Eastport to build as many as 500 high-priced houses in an area with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and West Los Angeles.

The complex measure--which represents the second time in two years that Eastport has turned to the Legislature for help in its ongoing battle with the city--would actually clarify an amendment enacted in 1988. That amendment was drafted to validate the planning approvals but was later thwarted by a federal court decision.

Unless the 1979 tract map is renewed, whoever tries to develop the 1,500-acre site would have to start the approval process over and this time would face restrictive hillside construction laws and litigious homeowner groups that did not exist when the map was approved. City officials say such obstacles would probably limit the developer to building a fraction of the houses they have proposed and reduce their potential profits.

A lobbyist for Eastport, noting widespread opposition to the 1988 legislation as well as to the project itself, said Wednesday that it is unlikely that the amendment would be enacted before this legislative session ends Aug. 31.

The amendment was attached to a bill that had already been tabled for further study by the Assembly Local Government Committee and that technically cannot be reintroduced during the present legislative session. It is sponsored by Assemblyman David G. Kelley (R-Hemet).

Kelley has been the subject of controversy in recent months. He came under fire for proposing that the state Department of Fish and Game evaluate a 2,800-acre site next to his Riverside County citrus farm for use as a possible wildlife preserve. According to published reports, the land is for sale and Kelley opposes a luxury housing project proposed for the site.

Kelley did not return repeated phone calls.

The state evaluation found that the site was not worth acquiring.

Eastport lobbyist Les Cohen said he approached Kelley about the amendment because his bill, AB 4038, dealt with development subdivisions. Cohen said he knew nothing about the recent criticism of Kelley, but was attracted to the bill, in part, because it will be the subject of a public hearing this fall.

Cohen said opponents will get a chance to voice their concerns at the special interim-session committee hearing. The bill would then be reintroduced, with the amendment, during the session that begins in January, he said.

But an aide to state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles) expressed suspicion about the lobbyist's choice of a dormant bill, saying that rules could still be waived to allow its introduction in the present legislative session. Rosenthal, whose district includes the Eastport site, has said he opposes the use of state legislation to intervene in a local planning matter.

Project opponents, including representatives of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and City Councilman Marvin Braude's office, said they will continue to monitor the progress of the measure, which they termed special-interest legislation aimed at circumventing the local planning process.

Opponents say they are still angry that the 1988 amendment, sponsored by former state Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier), was attached to a bill late in the legislative process and enacted without publicity.

John B. Murdock, a Santa Monica attorney representing homeowners from Brentwood and Mandeville Canyon who oppose the project, said the new measure violates the state Constitution's protection of home rule.

"This is a prime example of why that provision is in the Constitution, to prevent special interests from going to the Legislature for favors," Murdock said. "It is inappropriate to have the Legislature get involved in a land-use matter like this."

But Cohen said he welcomed the chance for the issue to be heard in public, on its own merits, "so nobody could say Les Cohen, the lobbyist up in Sacramento, is sneaking around." Cohen has been seeking legislative help for the project since the spring, when a federal judge stripped the site of its zoning approvals.

The decision in March bS. District Judge Terry J. Hatter has been appealed by Eastport to thS. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In one of the latest developments in the complicated litigation between Eastport and the city over the tract map, Hatter found that the 1988 Eastport legislation could not be applied to building rights that had already expired.

The project has been mired in controversy since the early 1970s, when a group of Mandeville Canyon homeowners sued to stop the proposed housing development on environmental grounds and lost.

In 1987, Eastport Associates filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in federal bankruptcy court after it failed to win a crucial road easement through Mission Canyon from Los Angeles County. A former county landfill, Mission Canyon would provide a second access route to the Eastport site and allow the developer to build 500 rather than 300 homes.

Eastport, whose reorganization is pending, then sued the city for not extending its tentative tract map. The developer contends that it was prevented from exercising the building rights granted by the tract map because the county refused to award the crucial easement. The developer also argues that the city should have helped it obtain the easement.

The controversy surrounding the 1988 Eastport legislation was fueled when Montoya was found guilty of corruption in office. Although Montoya's conviction in February was unrelated to the Eastport bill, his association with the legislation has been noted by project critics such as Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Los Angeles).

Before Kelley agreed to amend his bill, Cohen approached Assemblyman Jim Costa (D-Fresno) and asked him to amend a bill that Costa was carrying. Costa declined, according to an aide, not because of the amendment's merits or the development controversy, but because he didn't have time to take on the issue during this session.

Cohen acknowledged that he has had difficulty persuading legislators to sponsor Eastport's measure because of publicity about the ongoing controversy.

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