A computerized system for monitoring growth in the eastern San Gabriel Valley and other rural fringes of the county has been approved 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 last week on a 4-0 vote, the county must reject proposed residential or commercial developments in unincorporated areas such as Diamond Bar and Rowland Heights if a computer analysis shows that the resulting growth 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. Instead they adopted a compromise measure that changed the provision only slightly.
The so-called loophole would have allowed county planners to ignore the effects on the community if they decided that "overriding considerations" outweighed the adverse impacts. Planners have never defined "overriding considerations," but say they could include the need for senior citizen housing or other social benefits.
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 said 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 the size of classrooms, level of traffic and other community statistics, and would predict the effect on those services if any given project was approved.
But Sherman W. Griselle, leader of the Coalition for Los Angeles County Planning in the Public Interest that sued the county in 1973, said he was disappointed with the plan, which he said left open "exactly the kind of back door 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 environmental and homeowner groups, sued the county over its planning policies, which they claimed encourage urban sprawl in rural areas including the eastern San Gabriel Valley, Malibu, the Santa Monica Mountains, the Santa Clarita Valley and the Antelope Valley.
It is unclear whether any significant slowing of development will occur in outlying areas as a result of the county's new plan.
Environmental and homeowner groups say the plan will 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 will give the county a better 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 put a strain on 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 the potential loophole, "we believe the overall plan will stop things that are irrational."
Huebner said the monitoring system and growth restrictions may not dramatically slow down development, but will help ensure that more thought goes into each project.
The areas affected by the policy have all 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 report shows that growth is 20% higher or lower than the department's projections for any two-year period, a study would be undertaken to determine whether the area's general plan for growth should be revised.
Murdoch expressed hope that the new plan will satisfy Judge 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."