Brushing aside pleas that property values and family lives would be irreparably harmed, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to go ahead with plans to build a courthouse in the west San Fernando Valley.
By a 3-2 margin, the board voted to spend up to $4.3 million to design a 12- to 18-courtroom structure on the edge of a Chatsworth industrial park. The 9.3-acre vacant lot at Plummer Street and Winnetka Avenue is owned by commercial developer Alexander Haagen, a generous contributor to local politicians.
Neighbors of the project condemned the supervisors for not listening to their concerns and accused the board of giving Haagen preferential treatment.
“The whole situation smacks of political corruption,” said Harry Godley, chairman of the Chatsworth Homeowners Committee. “The home and the family just takes a back seat. . . . There’s a callous disregard for the sensitivity of the community.”
Haagen’s firm will design the West Valley Municipal Courthouse and, if all goes as planned, the county will buy the land from him for $12 million and pay him up to $30 million more to build the courthouse.
In an unusual liaison, the two votes against the project were cast by the West Valley’s present supervisor, Michael D. Antonovich, a conservative, and Supervisor Edmund D. Edelman, a liberal, who will be the region’s future representative under court-ordered redistricting rules.
Antonovich and Edelman tried unsuccessfully Tuesday to persuade their colleagues to support a monthlong delay so that county staff members could further evaluate another Chatsworth site favored by homeowners.
Godley said the vote seemed so well-orchestrated that some community members doubted the sincerity of the supervisors’ opposition, particularly that of Antonovich, who has received more campaign contributions from Haagen than any other supervisor.
“It could’ve been a setup,” Godley said. “But then again, they were the only two who befriended us, so it’s hard to know.”
Greig Smith, aide to City Councilman Hal Bernson, said that when he entered the supervisors’ boardroom Tuesday, a county staff member told him that he was wasting his time.
“They had their minds made up before they looked at anything,” Smith said.
In the past, Smith said, Bernson would have no recourse against the county, but Smith hinted Tuesday that there might be a basis for legal action.
“Something’s been overlooked, but I don’t want to say more,” he said.
Bernson, who represents the area where the courthouse would be located, has opposed constructing it at Haagen’s site.
Leaders of the homeowners committee said that they would continue their opposition and that a lawsuit might be their next step.
They said they had shown good faith by supporting an alternative site for the courthouse, a nine-acre parcel at 9200 Mason Ave. Court officials had previously dismissed that location as too expensive and too difficult to build on.
Stephen A. Farley, chief financial officer for Allegretti & Co., which owns the Mason Avenue land, told the board that he had dropped his price below that of Haagen’s site and that he had offered to acquire an adjacent parcel to avoid building problems anticipated by the county staff.
Farley’s allegation that the county had ignored the company’s most recent offer led Antonovich to suggest the delay.
However, representatives of the crowded court system and the county’s Internal Services Department urged supervisors to act quickly, saying every day the project is delayed could add $10,000 to construction costs.
“This issue has gotten very, very close scrutiny,” Los Angeles Municipal Court Presiding Judge Jon M. Mayeda said. “If the court had been wrong on its recommendation, then the argument against that site would be more persuasive and clear . . . by now.”
Last week, the homeowners hired attorney Marvin L. Rudnick, hoping that he could determine whether Haagen’s close ties to the board would influence Tuesday’s decision.
Godley said his group will meet soon to decide what to do next. Rudnick said that if the neighbors decide to continue with his services, he will look into allegations surrounding the county’s 1987 purchase of the former Sears headquarters building in Alhambra, which left Haagen at least $9 million richer.
Antonovich’s strong support for that purchase formed the core of former Supervisor Baxter Ward’s 1988 campaign for the 5th District, which encompasses most of the Valley. Ward also said Antonovich supported Haagen because of the developer’s campaign contributions.
Records show that since 1984, Haagen has donated more than $87,000 to the five supervisors. Antonovich received the most, $37,550, followed by Supervisor Deane Dana at $27,000, Supervisor Kenneth Hahn at $17,000, Supervisor Peter F. Schabarum at $4,000 and Edelman at $1,700.
Homeowners charged that Hahn is especially friendly with Haagen. The developer hired Hahn’s daughter as a shopping mall manager and named a mall after the supervisor.