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Developer Broke Promise Over Ancient Oak, Suit Alleges

December 04, 2002|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Seeking monetary damages, an injunction and a portable toilet, an environmental group has filed a lawsuit accusing a developer of breaking its promise to save a 400-year-old oak tree near Santa Clarita that stands in the way of a road-widening project.

In a civil complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment accuses developer John Laing Homes of fraud, breach of contract and unfair business practices for failing to redesign the road project that threatens the oak, dubbed Old Glory.

The lawsuit, filed last month, alleges Laing officials reneged on a deal they made with the environmental group in November 1999.

Under the agreement, the company would realign the road and save the nearby tree, and in return, activists would not challenge the county's approval of its nearby housing development.

"Instead," the complaint states, "John Laing used most if not all of its vacant land adjacent to Old Glory to build $500,000-plus tract homes ... making it difficult for [the company] to build out the road construction project to a four-lane width."

Activists say the agreement was spelled out in a Nov. 1, 1999, letter from Laing officials, in which the company agrees to use "good-faith efforts" to preserve oak trees in the canyon.

Laing spokeswoman Annette McCluskey said she had not seen the lawsuit. But she said the company lived up to its agreement, although it is required to widen Pico Canyon Road under its county building permit.

Bowing to public protests, the developer recently announced that it would relocate the tree at a cost of more than $250,000, rather than cut it down.

But environmentalists contend that moving the tree would kill it, and activist John Quigley has refused to climb down from his makeshift campsite in the towering oak. Quigley first climbed up the tree on Nov. 1. Supporters have maintained a vigil at the base of the tree, an area that was fenced off by the developer Nov. 14. The lawsuit, however, claims the developer "falsely imprisoned" the activists.

The complaint also demands at least $50,000 in damages, an injunction or restraining order to keep the tree where it is, and the appointment of a state court receiver to take possession of the tree. If the tree is lost, the suit demands that the developer purchase oak forest land elsewhere in the Santa Clarita Valley as restitution.

It also demands that a "temporary portable lavatory" be hauled over the fence.

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