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Porter Ranch Immune to Most Future Growth Laws : Development: The city enters an agreement that protects the huge project for 20 years in exchange for $2.5 million toward traffic improvements.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles City Council on Friday granted 20 years of immunity from most future growth-control laws to the Porter Ranch project, a vast development proposed for the mountain slopes of the northwestern San Fernando Valley.

By its vote, the council ratified a contract with Porter Ranch’s investors, designed to protect the controversial project from changes in political climates and movements.

Interest in securing such protections hit a high among Porter Ranch investors when City Councilman Hal Bernson, who represents the area, nearly lost his council seat in the spring election to candidates who campaigned against the project.

The contract, worked out in almost a year of negotiations, protects the project from future political drives, such as Proposition U, which in 1986 slashed the commercial development potential of thousands of parcels of commercially zoned land throughout the city.

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In return for the immunity--which is sweeping, but not total--the city got Porter Ranch Development Co. to agree to pay $2.5 million toward two major traffic improvement projects in the northwest Valley and to make early payments on required city fees to complete some other traffic-related improvements.

State law requires that cities obtain extra concessions from developers who are granted such contracts, known as development agreements. If the concessions are not beyond what the cities could otherwise exact, the agreements are invalid, according to state law.

The Porter Ranch project is planned to be one of the largest developments in the city’s history--with more residential units than Century City and larger in acreage than Century City or the planned Playa Vista Project near Los Angeles International Airport. The site alone is huge--1,300 acres of undeveloped land in the rolling foothills north of Chatsworth.

Led by politically influential Beverly Hills builder Nathan Shapell, the developers plan 6 million square feet of commercial development and 3,395 residential units for the site.

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Although getting the development agreement approved was of key importance to the future of the development, a laconic Shapell conceded Friday that the project’s future is now at the mercy of the recession.

“It all depends on the market,” Shapell said when asked by reporters when groundbreaking would begin.

“How should I feel after so many years?” Shapell said, when asked for his reaction to the council vote. He declined to elaborate. Shapell was accompanied by a large entourage of lobbyists, attorneys and consultants.

The council vote was 10 to 1 to approve a series of actions in connection with the development agreement. However, because the vote was not unanimous, an ordinance authorizing Mayor Tom Bradley to sign the agreement must be voted on again when the council reconvenes after its Christmas holiday recess.

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The agreement would exempt Porter Ranch from many growth-control measures--especially locally focused legislation that might seek to directly reduce the size of the Porter Ranch project or to amend the Porter Ranch Specific Plan, a blueprint for developing the area that the council approved in July, 1990.

But the exemption is not total. For example, the project is not immune from citywide health and safety measures enacted specifically to curtail growth as a way to solve pressing shortages of water, sewage facilities or dump space.

Additionally, the city also insisted that Porter Ranch be required to pay any future, but as yet unapproved, housing linkage fees. The city is contemplating imposing such fees on commercial projects to help finance construction of lower-cost housing.

Bernson--who was criticized by political opponents for accepting about $50,000 in campaign contributions from the development company and its business associates--called the deal an excellent bargain for the city.

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But the lawmaker also assured his colleagues that the agreement was crafted by city attorneys, planners and other employees--not himself--in lengthy negotiations with the developer. “I have kept a very clear distance from myself and those negotiations,” Bernson told his colleagues.

Critics told the council that the city did not drive a hard enough bargain with Shapell.

The city, they said, should have obtained bigger concessions and payments in return for granting the developer protection against future slow-growth legislation, such as Proposition U.

“This is extremely lopsided in favor of the developer,” said Walter Prince, a Northridge businessman who was one of five candidates who ran against Bernson last spring on an anti-Porter Ranch platform.

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But Councilman Marvin Braude, a frequent critic of growth and the lawmaker who cast the sole dissenting vote Friday against the Porter Ranch development agreement, actually praised the pact.

Braude said the agreement got “more concessions from the developers” than the city had obtained in a half-dozen similar agreements the council approved in the past. “Mr. Bernson has done a very good job with this plan,” Braude said.

Yet, Braude added, he was opposed to the plan because it robbed the city of the important “right of discretion” to change its mind about the scope of the Porter Ranch project in the future. Braude previously voted against development agreements approved for other mega-projects, such as Continental City near LAX and the Hughes project in Westchester.

Highlights of Porter Ranch Deal:

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What Porter Ranch investors get:

* Protection--At least 20 years of protection from any attempts to reduce the size of the development or to amend the previously approved Porter Ranch Specific Plan, but without receiving immunity from citywide growth-reduction measures based on health and safety concerns.

What Los Angeles gets:

* A bridge--$2 million for construction of the Aliso Canyon Bridge, a structure planned to link two unconnected portions of Sesnon Boulevard.

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* A tunnel--$500,000 for construction of a tunnel to take traffic on Mason Street under a Southern Pacific railroad track.

* Traffic signals--Accelerated payment of $1.075 million to the city to develop a computerized traffic signal system at nearly three dozen intersections in the northwest San Fernando Valley. The developer would have been required to make these payments without the development agreement but agreed to make them more quickly.

* Possible development fees--A commitment that Porter Ranch will pay any future fee imposed by the city on commercial development to raise funds to build lower-cost housing.


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