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City to Let Judge Decide on Development : Thousand Oaks: Council votes to drop a proposal to pay the landowner $2 million not to build the project.


After a dozen years of bitter wrangling with developer Nedjatollah Cohan, the Thousand Oaks City Council has decided to leave the fate of his 47-acre parcel in Newbury Park up to a Superior Court judge.

Cohan sued the city last year after the council rejected his plans to build a shopping mall and 170 homes on the property, located on a flood plain at the southwest corner of Reino Road and Kimber Drive.

In an effort to avoid litigation, the city and Cohan worked with a consulting firm to draft a compromise, which was presented to the public last week.

But many Newbury Park residents were furious about the compromise, which would have raised taxes in the neighborhood for the next 30 years in order to pay the developer $2 million to abandon his planned shopping mall.

Blasting the proposed payoff as extortion and bribery, dozens of people urged the City Council to stand behind its original decision rejecting the development.

In closed session Tuesday, the council did just that.

Rather than proceed with studies about how best to raise taxes through a special assessment district, council members decided to take their chances in court.

At a hearing scheduled for May 4 at 8:30 a.m., Judge John J. Hunter will rule on Cohan's suit, which charges the council with violating the state's open-meeting law by considering--and ultimately rejecting--the project without first putting the issue on the weekly agenda.

While not on the agenda, the council's public hearing in July, 1992, on the Cohan case drew so many speakers that it lasted more than seven hours. The developer collapsed, sobbing, after it became clear he would lose the vote.

The council's rejection came a few weeks after the Planning Commission approved Cohan's blueprints. In his suit, Cohan charges that the council had no right to appeal the Planning Commission's decision because traditionally private citizens file such appeals.

The suit asks the court to rescind the council's vote on the project.

Although he had been eager to find a compromise to avoid litigation and appeals that could drag on for up to seven years, City Atty. Mark Sellers said Thursday that he feels confident about winning the case. He said the City Council routinely appeals Planning Commission votes.

Because the suit turns on procedural issues rather than the merits of the project itself, the judge's decision will probably be all or nothing, Sellers said.

Both sides say that if Cohan wins the suit, he will get to build his entire development, complete with a Ralph's grocery store and strip mall. If the city wins, council members are expected to try to rezone the property to preclude commercial development.

"We are at the mercy of justice," Cohan said, expressing confidence that he will prevail.

"I don't believe a judge will support the city against a person who bought this property 14 years ago and has been struggling with the city since then," Cohan added. "I'm just trying to develop my property."

Despite the risk that they will end up neighbors to a shopping center that they have long fought, several Newbury Park residents said they were glad the city decided to fight in court.

"It's appropriate that they stand by their decision," local activist Michelle Koetke said.

Councilwoman Elois Zeanah agreed: "We have a responsibility to exhaust our administrative and legal options before we even consider taxing our residents. I think we have to fight for what is right, and we know the decision to deny the project was right."

Zeanah also suggested that even if Cohan wins, he may have trouble financing his development or attracting tenants, given the shaky economy and the tortuous history of the parcel.

Cohan's son, Albert Cohen, who changed the spelling of his family name years ago, has said that Ralph's management has signed a commitment to anchor the project and other tenants have expressed serious interest.

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