Board Seeks Project Review Changes

Times Staff Writer

Hoping to curb the perception that builders have too much influence under the current system, Los Angeles County supervisors are asking county planners to propose changes to the environmental review process for major developments.

The motion, which was introduced by Supervisor Michael Antonovich, gives county officials 90 days to suggest changes to the county rules, which now allow developers to hire the consultants who prepare environmental reports.

That system came under fire after a recent criminal investigation of the Santa Clarita-based Newhall Land & Farming Co., which has proposed a 21,600-home development in north Los Angeles County. California Fish and Game officials alleged that the company concealed and destroyed an endangered plant on its property.

But when officials tried to interview the consultants who surveyed the land, the consultants refused to cooperate, saying that they had signed confidentiality agreements with the company as part of their contract.

The investigation was dropped last month as part of a civil settlement between the company and the district attorney's office. One misdemeanor charge against Newhall was dropped, and the company maintains that it did nothing wrong.

County supervisors will consider final approval of the Newhall Ranch project Tuesday. Lynne Plambeck, a project opponent, said the hearing should be delayed if supervisors do not trust the rules that governed the creation of its environmental reports.

"Why is it that Newhall Ranch is proceeding when there's a problem with the process?" she asked.

Antonovich deputy David Vannatta said that a delay was unnecessary. Any issues with the project could be brought up at the meeting, he said.

Planning officials are concerned that if the environmental review system is changed they will not have the money or staff to choose and hire environmental consultants for the county's myriad projects. The motion notes those concerns, but says that they are outweighed by "the value of an even greater arm's length approach to the preparation of these documents."

Earlier this year, state Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) introduced legislation preventing developers statewide from directly hiring the consultants who prepare their environmental reports state. The bill also was influenced by the Newhall case.

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