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Developer Balking at City's $70,000 Bill for Environmental Report : Moorpark: Messenger says document is being held 'hostage.' Official says firm hasn't paid bills.


An additional $70,000 might not seem like a lot of money for a firm planning a billion-dollar development on the northeastern edge of Moorpark, but executives from the Messenger Investment Co. say the bill from the city amounts to a ransom note.

Almost a year has passed since the city hired a private consulting firm to conduct the environmental impact study for the 3,200-home development that Messenger plans to build.

The consulting firm's work is being reviewed by city planners, who have already made repeated and costly changes, racking up a bill of more than $50,000 in city time alone, said Gary Austin, Messenger vice president.

"Our problem is that there are no checks--there are no controls on expenditures," Austin said. "We're close to $100,000 over what was budgeted for the review, and we still haven't seen the document. We've already paid about $549,000, and they want another $70,000 before they release the document. It's as if they are holding it hostage."

City officials disagree with Austin's characterization.

"This isn't the staff picking on Mr. Austin," City Manager Steve Kueny said. "This has been delayed because they haven't been paying their bills."

Kueny said most developers would have had to pay for the environmental review up front, but that the city allowed Messenger to stretch out payments in a sort of "pay-as-you-go" scheme.

"The problem is that this is at least the second time that they have not made a payment," Kueny said.

Each day that a payment is missed, the release date for the environmental document is pushed back two days, he said.

City and company officials had hoped that the document would be released at the beginning of the year, but now are no longer making predictions about when it will be finished.

Apart from some fine-tuning of the environmental document, which city officials said now easily exceeds 2,000 pages, release of the document is contingent on the completion of a fiscal impact study. But the fiscal impact study cannot go forward until the Messenger company pays the $70,000 bill, Kueny said.

While the environmental impact study will look at how the influx of the estimated 14,000 new residents will affect traffic, local schools and the environment in this city of about 28,000, the fiscal-impact study will look at how the project will affect city coffers.

The development that Messenger is proposing is even bigger than the controversial 3,050-home Ahmanson Ranch development in the Simi Hills along the Los Angeles County line.

That project has been fraught with legal challenges during the past three years by several neighboring communities concerned about the potential impacts.

City leaders said this is one of the most significant projects ever to come before them for review.

"Gosh, this is very significant," said Mayor Paul Lawrason. "You're going to see a lot of discussion once this document is out."

But Messenger vice president Austin questioned the city's interest in the project, noting that the city has bent over backward to accommodate other firms wanting to build in the city, but has done little to accommodate them.

"We're bothered by the fairness of that," Austin said.

"Look, there's a little tension here," he said. "We're going to pay the bill this week or next week, but we're just questioning how the city has been spending the money."

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