In what has been called a test case of municipal control over development, lawsuits challenging the right of the City of Glendale to block a 702-acre hillside residential subdivision have been filed in state and federal courts by the project's developers.
The suits seek more than $100 million in damages from the city for thwarting a controversial proposal to develop the Inter-Valley Ranch, the largest undeveloped hillside parcel at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains above the Crescenta Valley. Also named as defendants were members of a local homeowners' association that opposes the project.
Glendale City Atty. Frank Manzano, who said he has not seen the suits, said the monetary damages are the largest ever sought from the city. Describing the suits as very unusual, he said he does not know of any other city in the state that has been challenged in court by a developer for refusing to approve a subdivision.
"This is a test case," Manzano said.
Owners of the Inter-Valley Ranch and the proposed developer, Uni-Cal Financial Corp. of Los Angeles, are charging that the city and residents conspired to block development or sale of the property. The suits also accuse the city of breach of contract, violation of civil rights and inverse condemnation of land, a reduction in property value because of government action.
Identical suits were filed May 30 in Los Angeles Superior Court and United States District Court in Los Angeles by attorney Jerald R. Cochran of Los Angeles, representing the landowners and Uni-Cal.
Cochran said the issue may be heard in federal court within 12 to 18 months. But a hearing in state court could be delayed for up to four years because of case backlogs, he said. Two suits were filed because of alleged violation of state and federal civil rights laws.
William W. Bliss of Rancho Mirage, trustee for owners of the ranch, said he is "seeking revenge" for the years of delays and financial losses he said he has suffered because of actions by the city and residents preventing him from developing the property. He and his partners have owned the ranch since 1961. Intense efforts to develop the land began in 1979.
"Nobody knows the agony I've been through, the sleepless nights I've had, the illnesses over this. It's going to cost somebody a lot of money. I've lost my patience," Bliss said.
City officials deny that they are to blame for Bliss' problems. Councilwoman Ginger Bremberg, a leading critic of hillside development, called the proposed subdivision "a bad plan." She said, "It doesn't meet our standards."
After years of negotiations between the city, landowners and developers, the City Council in 1982 rejected plans to build 282 homes on the ranch. The council cited potential problems from earthquakes, fires and floods in rejecting the plans, originally submitted in 1979. The proposal had been approved by the city Planning Commission and planning staff members but was turned down by the council in the wake of strong opposition from the Crescenta Valley Homeowners Assn.
Many residents urged the city to preserve the ranch as a wildlife and wilderness area and claimed that development would create excessive congestion, noise and pollution in adjoining neighborhoods, developed in the 1960s.
Inter-Valley Ranch owners challenged the city's denial in court and a Los Angeles Superior Court judge last year ordered the city to reconsider its denial. Instead, the city appealed and a hearing before the state Court of Appeal is pending.
The suits filed last week claim that the city in 1971 encouraged landowners to annex the ranch property to the city in order to stimulate and permit development. Cochran said 42 acres of the ranch were within the city boundary and zoned for single-family residential development.
He said city officials recommended in 1971 that owners annex the remaining 660 acres, which were in unincorporated county territory. In exchange, the city promised to provide water and power services and assistance to developers in obtaining approval for a subdivision plan, Cochran said. By 1975 the 660 acres had been annexed.
Bliss said he and developers cooperated with city planners on a subdivision proposal that complied with city guidelines. But he said the plan was rejected in 1982 by the City Council because of what he claims were "political reasons resulting from homeowner pressure." He charged that the underlying reason for the denial was that council members and homeowners "wanted to make (the ranch) a public park."
Besides the city, defendants named in the suits are Councilman John F. Day, Bremberg and former Mayor Carroll Parcher. Also named are leaders of the homeowners' group--attorney Pierce O'Donnell, former President Lloyd Boucher and Vice President Robert B. Taylor.
Attorneys for the developers indicated the suit may be the first in the state, and possibly in the nation, that seeks to single out homeowners for their anti-development activity.
Bliss said he does not intend to negotiate a settlement out of court, even if the city were to permit him to develop the land.
"I intend to force the city to permit us to have a variety of housing up there, including town homes, at higher density than was proposed before," he said, "or they can buy (the land) from us. Enough is enough."
The suits seek $10 million from the city for inverse condemnation of land and at least $92 million from the city, council members and residents for compensatory and punitive damages and legal fees.