In a ruling that could lead to major changes in the way new cities develop, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge has overturned a decision by the city of Calabasas to allow construction of a luxury housing project in the mountains.
The decision by Judge Robert H. O'Brien is a setback for Micor Ventures' controversial plans to build a gated community of 250 residences on 938 acres east of Las Virgenes Road. O'Brien ruled Dec. 28 that because the city has not adopted its own land-use plan, it must abide by Los Angeles County's plan, which would not have allowed the project.
Officials in the city, which incorporated in 1991 to gain more control over local land-use decisions, called the ruling a dangerous precedent that could undermine the planning policies of newly formed cities around the state.
"I don't know what the hell we do," Councilwoman Lesley Devine said. "The right of a new jurisdiction to control its own destiny has just been removed. It absolutely knocks out the entire state law on the rights of a brand-new city."
Under state law, new cities have up to 30 months to formulate their own general plans, which serve as blueprints that govern how communities develop. Until its general plan is adopted, a new municipality is allowed by state law to approve projects piecemeal.
Calabasas is in the process of drawing up its own general plan.
But O'Brien said in his five-page ruling that when the city adopted some county ordinances regulating the use of land when it incorporated in March, 1991, it adopted the restrictions of the county's General Plan as well.
"It would be an unacceptable sleight of hand if the city . . . could escape the density requirement of the General Plan and yet take advantage of the county ordinances in other respects," the judge wrote.
The county's plan for the area would have limited Micor's project to 81 units, less than a third the number Calabasas approved.
Micor President Michael Rosenfeld called the ruling a "temporary setback" and said he would wait to see what action Calabasas officials take before proceeding. Calabasas City Atty. Charles Vose said the city very likely will appeal O'Brien's ruling.
O'Brien's decision stems from a lawsuit filed in May against the city by the environmental group Save Open Space, which contended that Calabasas officials gave Micor preferential treatment and did not follow proper procedure.
Save Open Space attorney Frank Angel heralded O'Brien's ruling and discounted claims by Calabasas officials that it revoked the city's power to determine how it will develop.
"It's not at all shackling or restricting the authority of local governments," he said. "They just cannot act like a local dictatorship. They must act like a local government."
O'Brien declined to comment on the case.
The ruling's effect on other new cities was unclear. It sets no statewide legal precedent unless it is upheld by a higher court on appeal. But land-use officials around the state agreed that it appears to restrict the power of local officials to change zoning and other land-use rules previously in effect under county rule, unless they specifically exempt their communities from existing plans.
"One of the reasons for incorporation is to control your own land-use," said Dan Curtin, a Walnut Creek attorney who specializes in planning issues. "The court is imposing a land-use plan on them that they have not adopted. When the county rules continue to be followed, that kind of defeats the purpose of incorporation."
Agoura Hills City Manager David Carmany, who was hired to take a similar position in recently incorporated Malibu, said: "Of all the police powers a city has, land-use is the most important. For that reason, this decision is worrisome."