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Court Upholds Developers’ Practice of Hiring Consultants for Project Reviews

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A ruling by the state Court of Appeal has upheld Los Angeles County’s controversial practice of letting developers hire the consultants who review their projects.

In a 2-1 decision, the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles overturned a prior ruling that the county’s procedures violate the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires that decisions on major developments be based on objective environmental impact reports.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Zebrowski last summer voided the county’s approval of the La Vina housing project in Altadena, saying the approval was based on a faulty environmental impact report. Zebrowski said the report was flawed because the county allowed the developer to hire the firm that prepared it, which the judge called a conflict of interest.

But in its decision this week, the appeal panel declared that state law allows developers to hire those who draft environmental reports, so long as the planning department “independently reviews, evaluates and exercises judgment” over the contents.

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The panel returned the La Vina case to Zebrowski to decide if county planners met that test.

In a sharply worded dissent, Judge Donald N. Gates said the court, by allowing planning departments “to operate in this forbidden fashion,” was fueling “disillusionment” with public officials.

Most county and city planning departments hire and supervise environmental consultants. Some utilize full-time staff planners to prepare environmental reports. In the city of Los Angeles, as in Los Angeles County, developers still hire environmental consultants. The city filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the county’s position.

“We always felt we had a good system . . . and it’s always nice to have that ratified by the courts,” said Pam Holt, an assistant administrator with the county Department of Regional Planning.

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County planners last year began considering changes in their system in case Zebrowski’s ruling was upheld. In an interview Friday, Holt said there may still be changes, but that they would come “in a more considered fashion” than if “the court decision had come down in a different way.”

However, the county faces a second challenge to its process--an appeal of its approval of the Paramount Ranch housing project in Agoura.

Although the second panel will not be bound by the La Vina decision, Carlyle W. Hall Jr., attorney for the plaintiffs--the Sierra Club and the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation--acknowledged that the ruling “is not helpful” in that it does not forbid developers from selecting the environmental consultants for their projects.

However, Hall said he believes that he still can prevail on the issue of the county’s review of the consultants’ work. “We have pretty good evidence that that review was perfunctory, at best, and at worst was pathetic,” he said.

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County officials said they carefully reviewed the environmental report on Paramount Ranch.

Regardless of the outcome of Paramount litigation, it appears the project will never be built. In a deal with a bank, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has taken over defaulted loans on the property as a first step toward foreclosing and acquiring the land for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.


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