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VALLEY BUSINESS | BIG GREEN: COUNTRY CLUBS MAKE A COMEBACK

State's Objections Put Big Tujunga Wash Plans in the Rough

Environment: Despite approval of project by Army Corps of Engineers and city of Los Angeles, developer now must come to terms with Fish and Game.

July 06, 1999|MORRIS NEWMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Development of the controversial Red Tail golf and equestrian project in Big Tujunga Wash has been delayed by objections from the state Department of Fish and Game, according to company officials.

Although the Los Angeles City Council approved the project in May of last year, a special permit known as a "stream alteration agreement" remains the last regulatory hurdle facing the golf-course developer, Foothills Golf Development Co.

The city's approval of the project last year requires the developer to get the approval of the state agency, too. The developer has proposed a 149-acre course surrounded by 210 acres that would remain in a natural state.

Harold Hutchins, chief financial officer of the developer's parent company, Transpacific Holdings Co. of Ponte Vidra, Fla., said the issue would go to arbitration this week.

At issue are the terms of a stream-bed alteration agreement, which is issued by Fish and Game to allow developers to change the course of rivers or streams. The agreement also specifies environmental repairs the developer must provide to compensate for the loss of natural habitat.

R.J. Comer, a partner in the Century City-based law firm of Christenson, Miller, Fink & Jacobs, declined to specify the exact points of disagreement between the golf-course developer and the state agency, which regulates all bodies of water, as well as lands bordering water, such as riverbanks.

The developer's attorney, however, did indicate two general areas of disagreement. The first, according to Comer, is to determine "the extent of the department's jurisdiction" as it pertains to areas where water flows only occasionally, such as Big Tujunga Wash.

"It's not as simple as looking at a stream," Comer said of the irregular patterns of water that flow through the wash after rainfall. Fish and Game officials, he said, "have asserted that almost the entire site" is included in the wash, while "we have asserted what we think is reasonable, which is [an area] significantly less than that."

The second question for the panel to determine, according to Comer, is the amount of development, or impacts from development, that the state agency will allow on lands under its jurisdiction.

"Currently, Fish and Game's position is that it wants no impact whatsoever in its jurisdiction," Comer said. Under such a condition, however, "Obviously, we can't build our project," he added.

"We are suggesting something we think more reasonable," which is development with "mitigated conservation measures," the attorney said.

"We are asking [Fish and Game] to implement what the city has already approved, nothing more and nothing less," he said.

A Fish and Game spokesman declined comment on the case.

Plans for Red Tail call for an 18-hole golf course, a club house, and bike and equestrian trails.

The California Environmental Quality Act empowers Fish and Game to issue the agreements, with the goal of "no net loss in [environmental] function and value" to streams and surrounding habitat, according to Kenneth M. Bogdan, environmental counsel for Jones & Stokes Associates, a Sacramento-based environmental consulting firm that is not involved in the project.

Although stream alteration agreements are "common," Fish and Game does not appear to have a uniform approach to issuing the permits, according to Bogdan. Although the department has been working on new guidelines to clarify stream alteration agreements, "the program has been implemented on an ad hoc basis through the years," he said.

Because state environmental law does not set out explicit standards for the agreements, Fish and Game has been accused of being too lax in some cases and too strict in others, according to Bogdan.

At the same time, the state department has "minimal resources and is trying [its] best to protect the fish and wildlife resources of the state, and [department officials] are doing as good a job as they can," Bogdan said.

Comer said he expects the arbitration panel to make its determinations before the end of the month. Construction is scheduled to begin before the end of the year.

The developer has put forward several proposals for a golf course in Big Tujunga Wash since 1987. In 1994, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected an earlier version of the project because the proposed development would have jeopardized an endangered species, the slender-horned spineflower.

In 1996, the developers won the approval of both the Corps and the Los Angeles Planning Commission with a revised version of the plan, creating a preserve for the endangered flower. In July 1997, however, the City Council turned down the project.

Shortly thereafter, the developer sued the city for $215 million, claiming that the council's rejection was illegal because the project was in compliance with city regulations. In May 1998, the council reversed itself and approved the project to settle the lawsuit.

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