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City Sues to Force 1995 Closure of BKK Landfill : Land use: Dump officials say 2006 is the agreed-upon date and have retained ex-state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp to respond. The complex case could spend more than a year in the courts.

June 24, 1993|ANDREW LePAGE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WEST COVINA — The owners of the BKK landfill have hired former state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp in what is expected to be a massive legal battle with the city of West Covina, which sued the dump this week to force its closure.

At this point, "you gotta get ready for war," said BKK President Ben Kazarian, who aims to keep the landfill open as late as 2006, although the city wants it closed by 1995.

A Los Angeles-based attorney with the law firm of Dewey Ballentine, Van de Kamp also might represent BKK, owner of one of the nation's largest landfills, in a countersuit that BKK officials say they will file this week.

Van de Kamp said he welcomes the city's lawsuit. It's best, he said, that the closure issue be settled in court because "it's very clear this was not going to get wrestled out at the local level."

Van de Kamp served as attorney general from 1983 to 1991. He lost a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1990.

West Covina officials filed their lawsuit against Torrance-based BKK on Monday, after the City Council's decision during closed session last week. City officials say it was important to sue now because it will likely take a year, and possibly much longer, for the matter to be resolved in court.

The city is seeking a determination of whether its 1985 "memorandum of understanding" with BKK to close no later than November, 1995, constitutes an enforceable contract. City officials maintain the agreement was always seen as a formal contract, and most council members want BKK to live up to what they say was a promise to close in 1995. BKK officials say the lawsuit they will file this week will also seek a judgment on whether the agreement equates to a binding contract, and will ask the judge to immediately prohibit the city from enforcing that agreement.

The city's suit also alleges that BKK officials knew at the time they signed the 1985 memorandum of understanding that they had no intention of upholding it, and asks for damages the city now estimates to be at least $5 million.

Although the landfill provides the cash-strapped city with millions of dollars a year in revenue, it is fiercely opposed by residents who live nearby. Many such residents attended a recent public hearing on BKK's proposed expansion plans and threatened to sue the city over alleged losses in property values if the landfill stays open past 1995.

"I support the city's effort to get a clear definition of (its agreement with BKK), but I won't feel relief until 1995 comes and they're closed," said Jean Arneson, a longtime BKK critic who lives less than a mile from the landfill.

The city and BKK have been at it before, with the city suing the landfill operator to eliminate noise, odor and pollution problems. Recently, BKK angered some council and city staff members by announcing plans to lower ridgelines along the west and north side of the landfill so it could obtain more dirt to cover trash that would be dumped years beyond 1995.

"They want to rip down hillsides and stay open another 12 years, and that's simply not acceptable to the city of West Covina," said six-year Councilman Bradley McFadden, an attorney.

"I pushed very hard for this lawsuit because we need to let them know we mean business, that we will force them to comply with the law."

In 1985 the two sides sat down and forged an agreement--the "BKK Landfill Transition Memorandum of Understanding"--that called for the city and BKK to work together to create plans to develop property near the landfill for commercial or other "urban compatible uses." Both sides wanted to create another source of revenue at the site before closing the dump.

BKK, which at the time was asking the city to defer a year's worth of its business license tax, agreed to close the landfill once 60% of the developable land was built, or 1995, whichever came first.

The city argues it is not responsible for what it says has been BKK's failure to submit adequate development plans over the years and wants the landfill to close even if no transition to other uses of the site is under way.

BKK officials maintain the city has reneged on the 1985 agreement by failing to approve development plans the company has submitted. BKK officials also argue that the agreement with the city was simply a statement of mutual goals and does not constitute a legally enforceable contract.

Therefore, BKK officials say, they are subject only to the terms of the land-use permit that the city granted the landfill operator in 1976. That permit allows BKK to operate through 2006.

Operation of the dump beyond 1995, BKK officials are arguing, would be in the best interest of the vast majority of West Covina residents. The city will suffer, they say, from decreased levels of service and higher taxes that are sure to follow an abrupt 1995 closure of the landfill, which contributes $5 million a year in revenue to city coffers. BKK pays a 10% tax on its revenues.

"Closure in 1995 would be devastating to the citizens of West Covina, and the only trade-off is that it would be positive for the residents who live near the landfill, and it would eliminate truck traffic," said Gary Kovall, BKK's general counsel.

If BKK does close in 1995, the city stands to lose revenue that equates to about 16% of its general fund.

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