SAN DIMAS — Los Angeles County has suffered a setback in its plans to commercially develop part of Frank G. Bonelli Regional County Park.
The county had asked for bids from developers last summer to build golf and equestrian centers at the park. But last week a Los Angeles Superior Court judge nullified those requests, ruling that the county had ignored the legal authority of cities near the park.
Judge Miriam Vogel, ruling on a lawsuit filed last year by a citizens group called the Coalition to Preserve Bonelli Park, said the county must consult with the park's Joint Powers Authority, which is composed of six nearby cities, before soliciting bids from developers.
The judge's ruling prevents the County Board of Supervisors from approving an agreement with a firm that had successfully bid to build a driving range and pro shop next to the Mountain Meadows Golf Course in Pomona. The ruling also nullified the county's request for bids to develop a 500-horse equestrian boarding center, an offer that had been met with no response.
The ruling was hailed by Ronald Vera, the attorney for the citizens coalition formed by residents enraged by the county's plans to have a hotel-restaurant complex developed in the park.
"I think it gives us everything we asked for going in," Vera said.
San Dimas City Councilman Denis Bertone, co-chairman of the coalition, called on Supervisor Pete Schabarum to reconsider his plans for the park in light of the ruling.
"We want Supervisor Pete Schabarum to heed the will of the people and discontinue any efforts to commercially develop the park," Bertone said. Schabarum represents the area containing the park and has spearheaded efforts for commercial development. The park is in southeastern San Dimas, next to Pomona and La Verne.
Schabarum, in a statement read by Judy Hammond, his press deputy, criticized Vogel's ruling and said it would have no effect on planned park development.
"Frankly, I think the judge missed that one," Schabarum said in the statement. "But we'll work through it and get the job done. We'll do what the judge required, but I fully expect the current park recommendation will still be appropriate. I'm frustrated by the additional two- to three-month delay this action imposes on the project."
Previously, the county had operated under the assumption that the Joint Powers Authority, which is composed of San Dimas, La Verne, Claremont, Pomona, Covina and Glendora, had no authority over the operation of the park, Hammond said. The authority meets briefly each year to approve the park's annual budget.
In the wake of Vogel's ruling, neither the county nor opponents of park development are sure how much influence the authority will now have over park development.
"It raises more questions than it answers," Bertone said. "The advantage for the cities is that it gives us more power, but we don't know yet how much."
Vera said the county counsel must, by Feb. 3, provide details of how the county will proceed with park development under the judge's ruling. If the coalition is not satisfied with the county's response, a hearing will be held by Feb. 17 at which Vogel will rule on the degree of influence the Joint Powers Authority should wield.
"I think the Joint Powers Authority is probably going to get some legal counsel and find out if they have any discretion or if they have to follow the county's direction," Vera said, adding that the coalition may take action against the authority if it does not sufficiently assert its legal powers.
The 1970 joint-powers agreement between the county and seven area cities--Walnut later dropped out of the authority--gives the authority power to construct, maintain and operate facilities at the park.
But at the time the Coalition to Preserve Bonelli Park filed its lawsuit, Senior Deputy County Counsel Amanda Susskind said the authority did not have regulatory power over the park. The authority, she said, was created as "a financing mechanism" to issue bonds to pay for improvements made to the park in the early 1970s.
The state Constitution limits the amount of debt local governments can accrue, but there is no such limit on lease payments, Susskind said. To take advantage of the lease payment exception, the county created the authority, which then floated the bonds for park improvements and leased the improved park area back to the county, she said.
Under such an arrangement, all control over park operation and development remains with the county, she said.
In his statement last week, Schabarum said he was bothered by "the larger question of whether the representatives of the adjacent cities who have no financial interest or obligation now have some say over how that park operates. As far as I'm concerned, you either have both (financial interest and authority) or none."
Bertone said the coalition will now urge the city councils that have representatives on the authority to take a hard line against park development.