A $560,000 lawsuit aimed at stopping unauthorized development in the Santa Monica Mountains has been filed against a Malibu property owner who allegedly bulldozed his land without obtaining a permit.
The California Coastal Commission and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy filed the suit after neighbors and park rangers earlier this month reported seeing a bulldozer at work on a 10-acre parcel next to Red Rock Canyon Park owned by Carmen Ranalli.
Work on the remote property in the Old Topanga Canyon Road area has since ceased after a temporary restraining order granted March 13 by Superior Court Judge Ricardo A. Torres.
"This stuff goes on all the time in this mountain range, and it really hurts the environment," said Paul Atchison, a park ranger who reported the bulldozing. "Maybe if this case gets enough publicity, it'll slow down a few people."
Ranalli said he hired bulldozer operator Tony Glaser to remove brush that could be a fire hazard, not to grade the land for development.
Glaser and his Oxnard engineering company, Glaser Engineering, also have been named in the suit, which charges the defendants with illegally grading at least an acre and consequently destroying a watershed that protected the adjacent park.
Glaser could not be reached for comment, but his wife, Toni, said her husband was following Ranalli's orders. "He just graded as directed," she said.
A Superior Court hearing has been scheduled for April 10, said Nancy K. Chui, a deputy attorney general assigned to the case.
The attorney general's office and the two state agencies are seeking $500,000 in punitive damages, $10,000 in civil fines from each of the three defendants for operating without a coastal permit and $5,000 in civil fines from each defendant for each of the two days it is alleged the defendants knowingly violated the California Coastal Act.
"This is a real shock," said Ranalli, an ironworker from Delaware County, Pa. "I think they're exaggerating a little about a lot of sage being removed."
Ahmad Shraibati, a grading inspector with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, said he would not have issued a stop-work order if Ranalli had just been clearing brush.
"It's the worst case of unauthorized grading I've seen," Shraibati said.
Ranalli's property is located on a slope above the southern boundary of Red Rock Canyon Park, a 120-acre wilderness area owned by the conservancy.
Earth that got pushed around by the bulldozer has clogged the Red Rock Canyon stream, which flows below, and upset its ecosystem, park ranger Atchison said. Animals that drink from the stream and from a nearby spring might have died from a lack of water if the bulldozing had continued, Atchison said.
"No one has been quite so brazen on our borders before," said Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. "The fact that these folks thought they could get away with it indicates the problem is far more widespread than we'd like to think."
"We get a lot of violations of this nature up there," said Lisa Horowitz, a program analyst with the Coastal Commission. "It's definitely a bigger story than just this one guy."
The Coastal Commission only has the resources to investigate some of the many reports it gets of unauthorized development, said Robert F. Joseph, supervisor of regulations. Complaints are rated because one investigator covers both Los Angeles and Orange counties, Joseph said.
Investigations sometimes disclose that property owners were unaware that they needed permits or that permits had already been issued, Joseph said.
"We do what we can do," Joseph said. "In this case, we visited the site because the property was near a stream bed and natural resources were being endangered."
Ruth Kilday, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Foundation, which raises funds for the conservancy, said she hopes the case will set a precedent.
"There's unauthorized development going on all over the state along the borders of our parks," Kilday said. "If we win this case, it will definitely set an example."