Los Angeles city authorities, citing public safety worries, Tuesday ordered Southern Pacific to halt construction of a lumber storage yard in Chatsworth, and the railroad responded with a threat to sue the city.
In a unanimous vote, the four-member city Building and Safety Commission agreed with City Councilman Hal Bernson's argument that the city's Department of Building and Safety erred in February when it granted the railroad permission to build the 13-acre lumberyard without first studying the effect the multimillion-dollar facility would have on nearby residents.
The commission's decision marked only one of four victories for Bernson on Tuesday in his fight to stop Southern Pacific from completing the lumberyard near Devonshire Street and Topanga Canyon Boulevard. The yard would be a transfer station where wood already purchased by customers would be unloaded from railroad cars, stored in open-sided sheds and loaded onto large trucks for distribution.
Earlier Tuesday morning, the city's Planning Commission, at Bernson's request, voted 5 to 0 to implement an interim control ordinance, essentially a one-year building moratorium, governing the portion of the Southern Pacific property within 300 feet of Devonshire Street. The ordinance is designed to prevent construction until the Devonshire-Topanga Specific Plan, a permanent zoning document now under consideration by the City Council, is approved.
Hours later, the council's Planning Committee, chaired by Bernson, voted 2 to 0 with one member absent to approve the interim control ordinance. "The railroad is running," Bernson said after the vote, "and it isn't Southern Pacific's."
The councilman's final victory of the day came when the full City Council, by a 14-0 vote, directed the Department of Planning to draft an ordinance changing the zoning to block lumberyard use of the portion of the site not included in either the interim control ordinance or the specific plan.
Royce Green, the railroad's director of special projects, said he was not concerned by the imposition of the interim control ordinance. Noting that he had not yet read the ordinance, he said he believed Southern Pacific would be exempt from the measure since the company received its building permits before the ordinance was passed.
In its decision, the Building and Safety Commission ordered the city to conduct a general environmental assessment to determine whether a more intensive environmental impact review is warranted. Southern Pacific cannot resume construction until the department finishes the study and decides the facility is safe, commissioners said.
The general environmental study ordered by the commission normally takes eight weeks, and the more sweeping examination commonly takes up to 18 months, said Susan Robert, environmental review coordinator for the Building and Safety Department.
William Pohle Jr., senior general attorney for Southern Pacific, said the company would appeal the Building and Safety Commission's decision to the City Council, and if the firm is not allowed to resume construction soon, it will sue the city for its initial investment and for expenses caused by the delay.
"Southern Pacific has complied with the spirit and the intent of all regulations," Pohle said.
Tom Huston, outside counsel for the railroad, said the facility complies with existing city law, and argued that the commission had no right retroactively to add additional criteria. The railroad already has spent $1.6 million of the projected $3-million cost of construction of the yard, and has built 70% of the facility, he said.
Pohle said the Chatsworth site has been used as a railroad freight transfer station since 1908, eight years after Southern Pacific bought the land.
Times staff writers Mayerene Barker and John Schwada contributed to this story.