Canyon Dump Ballot Measure Debated at Trial : Courts: Foes, supporters of western county landfill trade legal barbs at daylong session attended by nine lawyers.
The future of waste disposal in western Ventura County went on trial Monday as lawyers debated the legality of a ballot measure that would allow a landfill at Weldon Canyon.
After a day of legal arguments, a retired appeals judge promised to rule in the next few days on whether the initiative is legally drafted and can remain on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Landfill foes argued that the ballot measure is essentially “power grabbing” by a private firm intent on trashing the county’s land-use laws.
“You can’t adopt a plan first and then change all the laws,” argued Katherine Stone, an attorney speaking for the cities of Ojai and Ventura. The cities closest to the canyon filed suit in July after the measure was added to the ballot.
But landfill supporters said their opponents are merely quibbling over legal technicalities to block the public’s will. More than 32,000 county residents signed petitions this spring to put the measure on the ballot.
“I think the voters clearly understand that what they are doing with this initiative is considering whether they want a recycling center and landfill at Weldon,” said Wes Peltzer, lawyer for a coalition pushing for the project.
The coalition is backed by Taconic Resources, the San Diego County firm that has purchased the rights to develop the dump site.
Monday’s daylong session was no ordinary court hearing. There were nine lawyers, overflowing from the attorney’s tables to the jury box. They offered no witnesses or testimony.
Instead, they batted around phrases such as “zoning consistency matrix” and “adjudicatory action” as they quoted California Supreme Court cases.
Most of their arguments had been laid out before the hearing in voluminous legal documents filed with the judge.
“I was thinking we would need a landfill operation to take care of the paperwork,” retired Appeals Judge Richard Abbe joked during the hearing. “Maybe we can recycle,” he added cautiously.
The judge’s wry remarks at an earlier hearing were used against him when landfill supporters accused him of bias and tried unsuccessfully to take him off the case. Abbe, who lives in Santa Barbara, was picked to handle the matter only after five Ventura jurists were disqualified or removed themselves.
“I’ve decided it’s best that I don’t make any comments,” Abbe said at the outset of Monday’s hearing. Still he quizzed lawyers intently on their legal points.
One of the key issues was whether a private firm, Taconic Resources, can use an initiative to gain rights for a moneymaking project.
“I suppose this would be a different case if Taconic were not mentioned, if they just wanted a solid waste landfill site and not give the franchise to your clients,” Abbe said to Peltzer.
Peltzer said it would be “less honest to the voters” to hide the private firm’s involvement. He argued that the landfill’s foes had only cited one case in which courts barred a private firm from pursuing an initiative. And that involved a statewide measure.
The ban, he argued, does not extend to local initiatives.
Stone, who represents Ojai, disagreed. She acknowledged that there was only one court case addressing the matter, but added: “Not very many companies will do what’s been done here.
“I’ve never seen an initiative where some private company comes in and says I get to build something on somebody else’s land, and I’m the only one who gets to do it.”
Essentially, Taconic is asking voters to change land-use and zoning regulations to allow a landfill at the site. A larger firm, Waste Management Inc., tried for years to win approval for the project, but withdrew last summer when it became clear the Board of Supervisors would not support the landfill.
Taconic’s effort essentially circumvents the county and takes the matter straight to the voters. That is the whole point of California’s initiative process, argued Jim Parrinello, an attorney working with Peltzer.
He urged the judge to adhere to the strict standards for removing a measure before it reaches the voters. “If there are problems with the initiative, if it is passed by the people, there will be ample time after the election,” he said.
Foes argued that the initiative’s defects are serious enough to remove the measure now. They say the wording of the initiative creates inconsistencies between the county’s zoning and land-use rules.
What’s more, they say, the initiative method does not allow the county to impose all the requirements or mitigating factors that they had exacted from Waste Management a year ago.
Peltzer said the differences were minor and could be resolved after the election. Even with voter approval, landfill backers would need to obtain 18 permits, a process that could take three to six years.