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Opposition Grows Over Resort Project : Development: Critics of the retreat near Malibu gain political allies. Questions arise over approval by the county and the California Coastal Commission.


SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS — By his own description, the campground that developer Irwin (Red) Lachman wants to build in the Santa Monica Mountains near Malibu would be like no other.

A brochure describes the proposed 93-acre Latigo Ranch Resort as a New Age retreat, a study hall for reading the great books, a nature camp and a research lab for environmental conservation.

Supporters hail it as a prototype for camping resorts of the future.

It is to have its own restaurant, fitness center, tennis and basketball courts, two swimming pools, an arts and crafts pavilion, outdoor amphitheater and 123 tent-cabins with kitchen and bath that will rent for up to $125 a night.

Sound nice?

Not to opponents who contend that the project--with its parking for 180 cars and facilities for up to 400 guests and staff--is an environmental nightmare masquerading as a campground and that county and state officials never should have approved it.

"This project by any other name would never fly," said Steve Best, who heads a group of Latigo Canyon residents who fear it will bring increased traffic, noise and the threat of fire. "To call it a campground is ludicrous."

Despite approvals by Los Angeles County and the California Coastal Commission last year, the opponents appear to have gained several key allies, including state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica).

Hayden in recent weeks has openly criticized the county's handling of the project, accusing planning officials of a "clever linguistic tango" to avoid requiring the developer to obtain a conditional-use permit and prepare an environmental impact report.

Each would have required extensive public hearings.

Instead, opponents contend they knew little of the developer's plans until last November, a few days before the coastal panel--impressed by the developer's pledge to make the campground available to inner-city youngsters at no charge--gave its blessing.

Since then, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, whose board informally endorsed the project in 1991, has done an about-face, urging further scrutiny.

And in addition to Hayden, Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Thousand Oaks) and Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Sherman Oaks) have urged county officials to take a second look.

County Supervisor Ed Edelman, whose district includes the Malibu area, last month took the unusual step of directing county lawyers to investigate the handling of the project.

In an interview last week, Edelman said he will withhold comment on the matter until the county counsel's office completes its work.

Lachman and his partner, Malibu architect Ron Goldman, insist that the resort along Latigo Canyon Road two miles from the Pacific Ocean is environmentally sound and will not diminish the beauty of the rugged terrain.

Plans call for less than 10,000 cubic yards of grading, buildings are to cover less than 2% of the land, and nearly half the property--including an environmentally sensitive habitat area--is to be off limits to any kind of development.

Lachman dismissed the opponents as a small group of residents who prefer to keep the property to themselves. "They just don't want to see anything built there, in my opinion," he said.

The way the project has been handled, however, has prompted critics to raise questions about both the county's and the Coastal Commission's role.

Opponents argue that a conditional-use permit should have been required because the zoning for the property dictates one for projects that include such things as dining facilities, guest ranches, health resorts and recreation clubs.

Indeed, the county planner that initially reviewed the project concluded as much.

In a March, 1991, plot plan review, county planner Rose Hamilton wrote that "no further use processing on this request can occur until a conditional-use permit is applied for and approved."

However, the following month, John Schwarze, Hamilton's supervisor at the county's Department of Regional Planning, approved the project in concept, and exempted the developer from having to obtain the permit or prepare an environmental impact report.

In an interview, Schwarze said he based his decision on a zoning provision that permits such exemptions for campgrounds and accessory structures.

"It was my understanding that it was a campground," he said. "I vaguely remember (the developer) was talking about tent-cabins similar to what they have at Yosemite."

Opponents argue that by removing the necessity for public hearings they were left unaware of the developer's plans, and accuse the county of favoring the developer at the public's expense.

"Even if you can legally defend doing that, which I doubt, how do you defend it ethically?" Best said. "I mean, aren't they supposed to be our public servants?"

Having cleared an important hurdle, the developer solicited letters of support from several influential individuals and agencies, including the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the head of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

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