Bowing to pressure from opponents, Los Angeles County officials have withdrawn their support for a controversial camping resort near Malibu, ruling that the developer should have been required to obtain a conditional-use permit before the county approved the project in 1991.
A top county planning official said this week that construction of the proposed Latigo Ranch Resort will not be allowed to proceed until the permit is obtained, adding that developer Irwin (Red) Lachman probably will also be required to prepare a costly and time-consuming environmental impact report.
"If we've made a mistake, we're going to have to stop and correct it," said Rudy Lachner, an administrator with the county's Department of Regional Planning.
The decision means that before the project can go forward, it almost certainly will face a series of extensive public hearings. Opponents will get the chance to argue that the 93-acre resort along Latigo Canyon Road--two miles from the Pacific Ocean--should not be built.
The opponents, who had accused the county and the California Coastal Commission of improperly approving it, were jubilant upon learning of the decision.
"In a nutshell, this makes us feel like the little guy can win, too, sometimes," said Janet Katz, a member of a Latigo Canyon homeowner group opposed to the project.
The developer, meanwhile, angrily criticized the county's action. "It makes no sense to me," Lachman said. "It's extremely frustrating and disappointing."
Lachman and supporters of the project describe it as a prototype for camping resorts of the future. Plans call for it to have its own restaurant, fitness center, tennis and basketball courts, two swimming pools, an arts and crafts pavilion, outdoor amphitheater and 123 tent-cabins with kitchen and bath that will rent for up to $125 a night.
Critics contend that the project--with parking for 180 cars and facilities for more than 300 guests and staff--is an environmental nightmare masquerading as a campground, and fear it will bring increased traffic, noise and the threat of fire.
Opponents argued that the zoning for the property dictates that a conditional-use permit is required for projects that include such things as dining facilities, guest ranches, health resorts and recreation clubs.
But in April, 1991, county planning administrator John Schwarze approved the project in concept and exempted the developer from having to obtain the permit or prepare an environmental impact report, either of which would have required extensive public hearings.
In an interview, Schwarze said he based his decision on a zoning provision that allows such exemptions for campgrounds and accessory structures.
Upon learning of the exemption, outraged opponents--who contend that the project resembles a luxury resort more than a campground--accused the county of favoring the developer at the public's expense.
Despite the approvals, opponents gained an ally in state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who in recent weeks openly criticized the county's handling of the matter. Hayden, Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills) and Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Brentwood) each urged county officials to take a second look.
As a result, Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman, whose district includes the Malibu area, last month took the unusual step of directing county lawyers to investigate the handling of the project.
Both Lachner, the county planning official, as well as Edelman spokesman Joel Bellman said that the county based its latest action on an opinion by deputy county counsel Charles Moore that a conditional-use permit should have been required.
Neither Lachner nor Bellman, however, could explain what had changed since last January, when Moore concluded in an internal memo that Schwarze had acted appropriately in not requiring the permit. Moore was unavailable for comment.
"No matter how you rationalize what the county did, we don't believe (the county's) conduct was lawful in exempting (the developer) from obtaining the permit," said Greg Aftergood, a lawyer for the homeowner group.
Because the development site lies in the state's coastal zone, it also requires approval by the California Coastal Commission. The coastal panel approved the project 9 to 1 at a meeting in November at which the commissioners said they were particularly impressed with developer Lachman's pledge to make the facility accessible to inner-city youths.
In February, the Latigo homeowner group asked the commission to revoke its approval, but the commission refused.
The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency that buys parkland and monitors development in the coastal range, joined the chorus of opposition early this year, saying the project's potential for adverse environmental impacts was equal to numerous other projects that required an environmental impact report.
Other opponents include the Sierra Club's Santa Monica Mountains Task Force, the city of Malibu and the Topanga Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District.
Aftergood said this week that the homeowner group may ask the coastal panel to take another look at the matter, contending that the commission's decision was based on faulty approvals from the county.
Lachman insisted that the project is environmentally sound, and questioned how the same county lawyer who determined in January that no conditional-use permit was needed could now conclude otherwise.
"I've read (his opinion) and it's a lot of gobbledygook," Lachman said. "Let's just say my lawyers will be looking into it."