Federal wildlife officials have ruled that a proposal by a controversial Japanese developer to build a championship golf course in Big Tujunga Wash, one of urban Los Angeles' most environmentally sensitive areas, would jeopardize endangered wildflowers found in the rugged stream course.
The long-awaited decision by the Fish & Wildlife Service deals a blow to plans of Cosmo World Inc. to build an 18-hole course in Big Tujunga Wash, located in the extreme northern part of the city of Los Angeles and marked by rugged terrain and, during rainy periods, fierce flooding.
The ruling increases the likelihood that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the wash, will not issue the permit needed for the $50-million project to be built as planned by the developer, officials said.
"There's nothing that says they can't override our biological opinion, but they rarely do," said wildlife service biologist John Hanlon, who has worked on the Cosmo World golf course project for several years.
"This is very much a biological opinion reached after consultation with the corps," said Cynthia Barry, associate manager of endangered species for the Pacific region office of the Fish & Wildlife Service. "We wouldn't have anything in there (the opinion) that the corps didn't think was reasonable."
The developer is now studying the decision and deciding what to do next, said Mark Armbruster, an attorney for Cosmo World. A Cosmo executive did not return phone calls Thursday.
Officials with the Corps of Engineers also did not return phone calls about the status of the project. The corps must issue a permit before the project could be built.
"I think it makes it very clear that there won't be a development here," said state Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), whose district includes the wash. "A lot of us in the Valley consider the wash to be a significant open space. It's the last free-flowing river in the area."
"Now with the developer's eyes opened by this decision, I want to sit down with him and with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and see if we can't put the wash in the hands of the park system."
Cosmo World is owned by the reclusive Japanese business magnate Minoru Isutani. Cosmo World, which has owned numerous golf properties in Japan, has had bad luck with its golf ventures in California, starting with its $841-million purchase of the Pebble Beach resort near Monterey in 1990. After two years, Cosmo sold the Pebble Beach property for a reported $341-million loss.
At Big Tujunga Wash, Cosmo planned to build a championship golf course so stunning and challenging that it would lure the L.A. Open from its longstanding venue at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, backers said. The company developed a cadre of supporters in the Sunland-Tujunga communities who claimed the golf course would give a much-needed economic shot in the arm to their communities.
According to the recently issued finding, construction of the Cosmo golf course in Big Tujunga Wash "is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the slender-horned spineflower."
A federal endangered species, the tiny spineflower grows in alluvial scrub habitat--which is itself a rapidly disappearing ecosystem. The Big Tujunga Wash area is also identified in the city's General Plan as one of a half-dozen areas that are "ecologically important."
To protect its golf course from being devastated by flooding, Cosmo proposed channeling and deepening Big Tujunga Wash. But this system of waterworks--in conjunction with the existing Oro Vista levee--would interrupt the periodic flooding of the acreage where the spineflower grows. Such flooding is critical, the biologists have contended, to the spineflower's existence.
"All of these (flood control) features would result in an alteration of the current dynamic hydrological regime of the Big Tujunga Wash flood plain critical to the long-term perpetuation of Dodecahema leptoceras (the spineflower)," the 29-page report concluded.
To answer the agency's concerns, the developer proposed setting aside 78 acres within the golf course as a spineflower preserve. But this proposal, the biologists predicted, would be inadequate to sustain the population and would be "bisected by golf course features and a (golf) cart path."
Additionally, Cosmo offered to try growing spineflower plants on another site of 100 acres located downstream from the golf course. But the wildlife agency biologists asserted that there is no assurance that the spineflower would survive replanting.
Instead, the only way to build a golf course on the Cosmo site and save the spineflower would be to establish a 203-acre spineflower preserve next to the wash that would be "adequately buffered from direct or indirect effects of golf activities" and deeded to "a responsible public or private resource management entity," according to the agency opinion.