WARNER RIDGE : Case Is Settled, But Its Effects May Be Felt Well Into '93

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Warner Ridge case--over which much legal and political blood was spilled in 1992--is settled. But the fallout from it is very likely to be felt well into 1993.

In the new year, city planners will continue to wrestle with the messy aftermath of the Warner Ridge case as Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joy Picus tries to avoid the political bite of a controversy that dominated and, at times, vexed her fourth term.

The year 1992 began with two adverse court rulings that quickly persuaded the city--despite Picus' loud objections--to settle a $100-million lawsuit by the Warner Ridge development group that alleged that Picus and the Los Angeles City Council in 1990 illegally nixed its plans for a major office project on the 21.5-acre property.

For the courts, the issue was simple. The community plan for the Woodland Hills property allowed commercial development. The council, however, approved zoning to allow less intense--and thus less profitable--development. The courts held that the city must give Warner Ridge Associates the zoning promised by the community plan.

By September, a wearied City Council gave Warner Ridge Associates the final OK to build a 690,000-square-foot office project with 125 condominiums while Picus continued to damn the proposed project as an eyesore.

In the meantime, the Warner Ridge court rulings and the city's capitulation triggered three copy-cat lawsuits by other developers--including one by MCA Inc., the huge media conglomerate, that challenged the residential zoning on a large parcel it owns next to its Universal City retail-office complex.

Plaintiffs in the spinoff cases contended that their properties also were illegally zoned for less development than shown in their local communities' plans.

Nervous city planners warned that, thanks to Warner Ridge, owners of perhaps 10,000 parcels also might claim that their properties were illegally zoned, and the planners busily prepared a crash plan to defend against more lawsuits and handle other demands by builders seeking increased development rights.

To their surprise--and relief--the flood of lawsuits never materialized because the sluggish economy put a damper on most development plans.

Even so, by year's end, the city still had not implemented an approach for clearing up the thousands of discrepancies between the General Plan and zoning revealed by the Warner Ridge case--leaving that project to be completed in 1993.

"Unfortunately, the city does not respond quickly even when it has been hit on the head," said Carlyle Hall, a private land-use attorney retained to help the city grapple with the impact of Warner Ridge.

As for 1993, the MCA challenge might be the first big ripple from the Warner Ridge case.

The MCA lawsuit, filed in March, has been put on hold by a Superior Court judge who told MCA to see what development rights it could get through negotiating with City Hall, rather than through court.

"They were trying to intimidate us," said one city planning official of the MCA lawsuit. "They figured we might cave in after Warner Ridge and give them everything they wanted. We didn't and we're not going to."

Still, the MCA lawsuit "certainly got our attention," acknowledged Deputy Planning Director Frank Eberhard. Although the MCA property is now zoned for single-family residences on large lots, the General Plan designates it as commercial. "They're going to get some kind of commercial development," he said.

Meanwhile, Picus' political adversaries are committed to giving Warner Ridge a star role in their efforts to unseat the incumbent in the April election.

"Joy's handling of Warner Ridge is one of the main reasons I've decided to run against her," said Robert Gross, president of the Woodland Hills Homeowners Organization. He is one of four candidates challenging Picus.

Gross' entry into the race was a surprise to observers because he had been a longtime Picus ally in the Warner Ridge fight.

But according to Gross, Picus botched Warner Ridge. First, she failed to amend the General Plan to designate the site for housing before she zoned it for housing--the discrepancy that proved lethal in the subsequent lawsuit, Gross said.

Picus also injured the city's Warner Ridge legal defense with her tough talk--revealed in a court deposition leaked to the media--that reinforced the developer's contention that Warner Ridge Associates was the victim of City Hall politics, not good public land-use policy, Gross said. "It put her in a bad light with the court," he said.

In her deposition, Picus conceded that she decided to oppose Warner Ridge shortly before her 1988 reelection bid because it would be popular.

Harvey Englander, a political consultant for the campaign of Laura Chick, a former Picus deputy now running against her ex-boss, said Warner Ridge is "the shining example of Picus' ineffectiveness."

The incumbent's handling of the Warner Ridge controversy is "the single most talked about issue" among 3rd District residents, Englander said. People are generalizing and asking, Englander said: "If she can muck this up, what can she do to muck up their projects?"

If Warner Ridge is an issue, Picus said she won't have any apologies for her rock-hard opposition to the developer's office project.

"The truth is that I went to the max for my community," Picus said. "I won in the council, but the city lost the case in the courts. And then our hands were tied. I did everything I could."

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