A computerized system for monitoring growth in Malibu, the Santa Monica Mountains and other rural fringes of the county was approved Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors in an effort to end more than a decade of litigation over the county's rural development policies.
Under the plan approved on a 4-0 vote, the county must reject proposed residential or commercial developments if a computer analysis shows that they would overburden public services such as roads and schools.
The board rejected an attempt by Supervisor Ed Edelman to toughen a provision that homeowner groups say is a significant loophole for developers, but agreed to make slight changes.
Originally the so-called loophole would have allowed the county to ignore the effects on public services if county planners decided that "overriding considerations" outweigh a project's adverse effects on the community. The county has never defined "overriding considerations" but says they would include such social benefits as providing senior citizen housing.
Board Will Rule
Edelman unsuccessfully argued that such overrides should require a four-fifths vote by the five-member board. As a compromise, the supervisors took the decision out of the hands of county planners and put themselves in charge of deciding such cases by a simple majority.
"This does stiffen the requirements," said Norman Murdoch, the county's planning director. " . . . If there are any controversies whatsoever, it will reach the Board of Supervisors."
County officials say a development would generally be denied if a computer study showed that schools, fire stations, sewers, libraries, roads or other basic services could not handle the expected population increases. Computers would keep a running tally of each community's classroom size, traffic levels and other statistics and would predict how they would change if a given project were approved.
But Sherman W. Griselle, leader of the Coalition for Los Angeles County Planning in the Public Interest, which sued the county in 1973, said he was disappointed with the plan, which he said left open "exactly the kind of backdoor to development which we hoped would not be included."
Griselle said the coalition will make a last-ditch effort to make the plan more restrictive next Tuesday when the county takes its proposal to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Norman L. Epstein. Epstein in January asked the county to work out a plan that would satisfy claims made in the lawsuit.
The coalition, representing numerous environmental and homeowner groups, sued the county over its general plan, claiming that it encourages urban sprawl in rural areas including Malibu, the Santa Monica Mountains, the eastern San Gabriel Valley, the Santa Clarita Valley and the Antelope Valley.
However, it is unclear whether any significant development slowdown would occur in outlying areas as a result of the county's new plan.
Environmentalists and homeowner groups say the plan would stop some projects from going forward, but Murdoch said he anticipates "no radical changes from what we have approved in the past. We are proud of our record."
Instead, Murdoch said, the computerized system gives the county a tool for deciding where services need to be added or improved.
For instance, he said, if computer studies find that a builder's project would strain local schools, county planners could analyze the cost of expanding such services and devise a plan to charge those costs to developers.
David Huebner, an attorney for the Center for Law in the Public Interest, which represents the coalition, said that while the county's plan still includes a loophole, "we believe the overall plan will stop things that are irrational."
Huebner said the monitoring system and growth restrictions may not dramatically slow development but will help ensure that more thought goes into each project.
All of the areas affected by the policy have been the scenes of clashes between the county and residents who are fighting to maintain their rural surroundings.
Murdoch said each of the areas will be monitored on a yearly basis, and an annual report will be produced that measures how fast the areas are growing.
If the reports show that growth is 20% lower or higher than the department's projections over a two-year period, a study would be undertaken to determine whether the area's general plan for growth should be revised upward or downward.
Murdoch expressed hope that the new plan will satisfy Epstein and put an end to the coalition's lawsuit.
"We hope this will terminate 12 years of litigation," he said.
"This is designed to respond to the original concerns that we not encourage the premature conversion of rural land to urban land."