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Suit Seeks Fees From Country Club Developer

March 17, 1994|GREG MILLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Four months after La Habra Heights voters rejected the expansive Powder Canyon Country Club development, city officials say they may be stuck with $85,000 in unpaid developers fees.

The city has filed a lawsuit in Superior Court contending that the Torrance-based developer, Forum Country Clubs of California, has failed to pay the fees.

Michael Colantuono, assistant city attorney, said the city also is likely to seek an additional $15,000 for the cost of putting the development proposal on the ballot in November. Voters rejected the plan by a 2-1 ratio.

The company had sought to build a golf course and 150 luxury homes on 540 acres in one of the city's most secluded canyons.

The $85,000 represents the unpaid portion of a $145,000 contract signed by the city and the developer in August, 1992, Colantuono said. The contract was drawn up midway through the application process after city officials realized that the $20,000 application fee initially assessed would cover just a fraction of their costs to hire engineers, planners and attorneys to evaluate the plan and various revisions.

As it turned out, the expenses eventually reached $400,000, and the city absorbed the costs not covered in the contract with the developer, officials said.

City officials said they have been unable to locate Forum's chief executive, Donald Miller. City Manager Noelia F. Chapa said she has tried unsuccessfully to phone Miller at least 10 times at his Torrance office in the last month.

Attempts by The Times to reach Miller were also unsuccessful. A woman who answered the telephone at Miller's former number Tuesday offered to take a message but declined to identify herself or answer questions about Miller's whereabouts.

Councilman Richard Newbre said he last spoke with Miller on the phone about a month ago, when the developer had just returned from a trip to Asia, where he apparently met with Japanese investors in the Powder Canyon project.

"I called him to see what the status was, trying to lean on him to pay the $85,000 he owes the city," Newbre said. "He said that he had been to Asia and discussed the matter with his partners and advised them that they would owe the money. He did not have a response from them on what they were going to do."

Costs mushroomed beyond the city's expectations when the plan was revised numerous times in response to criticism. Each revision had to be reviewed by city consultants, Colantuono said. Further, as the controversy surrounding the project grew, the city had to pay consultants to attend additional public meetings on the plan.

"The developer kept changing the description of the project in response to community opposition," Colantuono said.

Critics argued that the development would undermine the rural charm of La Habra Heights, a six-square-mile city of 6,000 residents. Others contended that the development would destroy fragile plant and animal life in the canyon.

In 1991, the city adopted new rules designed to protect itself from fee disputes by requiring developers to cover anticipated processing costs with a deposit. The new rules were put in place while the Powder Canyon development was still being considered, Colantuono said, but couldn't be retroactively imposed on Forum Country Clubs.

Councilwoman Judy Hathaway-Francis, who opposed the project, said the unpaid developer fees would be a significant blow to the city, which operates on a $3-million annual budget.

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