The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Thursday lifted a building moratorium that had been imposed in Agua Dulce because of concerns that septic tanks were contaminating the area's water supply.
By unanimous vote, the board ended the moratorium after being warned by a county attorney that keeping private property in limbo might successfully be challenged in court.
"Under recent Supreme Court law, if there is not found to be a reasonable public health rationale for it, we might be subject to liability for the damages of individuals in a moratorium," said Gerald F. Crump, the chief assistant county counsel, who called the moratorium a "drastic move."
The moratorium was imposed in March after health officials became alarmed at nitrate levels they found in 17 county-controlled wells in Agua Dulce. Several wells exceeded the state limit for nitrates and two others were on the verge of violating it.
The county declared that no new septic tanks, and hence no new construction, would be permitted until there was a comprehensive examination of the area's ground water.
But no county money was available for such a test.
A developer whose 49-home project was jeopardized by the moratorium offered to pay for a substantial part of the study if building could start. The supervisors agreed and, in July, briefly lifted the freeze for the developer and a few other property owners.
Homeowners have disputed the county's data on the contaminated wells, claiming that no conclusions about the water supply can be made when only 17 wells have been tested. There are hundreds of wells in the area.
The Agua Dulce study, which should be completed in July or August, should answer whether the water supply poses a health threat, said Jack Petralia, the health department's acting director of environmental management.
The board instructed county departments to continue monitoring the ground water supply in Agua Dulce, which means sweet water in Spanish, and determine what impact the new homes' septic systems will have on the water.
Nitrates pose a health risk to infants up to the age of about six months because it interferes with their ability to carry oxygen in their bloodstreams, health officials said. There is some evidence that pregnant and nursing mothers also should avoid drinking nitrate-tainted water.