Opponents of the Lang Ranch dam project won their first court battle Friday, persuading a judge to spare 40 oak trees at the Thousand Oaks site--at least for two weeks.
After hearing arguments from the Save Lang Oaks Fund, Judge Thomas J. Hutchins in Ventura County Superior Court agreed to issue a temporary restraining order blocking the county's plans to cut the trees on Monday to make way for the dam.
Although construction of the dam was not to begin until April, officials wanted to clear the trees before bird-nesting season begins.
Opponents had asked that no trees be cut until the county received clearance from the state to begin construction. When the state issued its final permit earlier this week, opponents petitioned the court.
But it may be too soon for the Save Lang Oaks Fund, representing environmentalists and homeowners in the Lang Ranch subdivision, to declare victory in its bid to stop or scale back the project.
Still, the group's lawyer, Alyse Lazar, was pleased with the ruling. "They can't proceed with dam construction until they take down the trees," Lazar said. "So if we keep the trees up, nothing else occurs until after this lawsuit is concluded."
The fate of the trees will be revisited at a Feb. 8 hearing. Meanwhile, opponents have filed a lawsuit alleging state environmental and safety laws were not properly followed in the dam's permitting process and that a new environmental review should be conducted. Lawyers for the county say they are confident they will prevail despite the restraining order.
"This process does not go to the merits of their underlying case," said Daniel Murphy, assistant county counsel. "It's simply to preserve the status quo until [the county] can provide answers to the court."
Officials of the Ventura County Flood Control District have said the dam is needed to protect downstream homeowners and habitat in the event of a 100-year storm. Opponents argue the dam is not needed, that it could be smaller or should be located elsewhere.
In recent months opponents have argued that a nearby landslide could affect the stability of a dam. County officials say they have taken the landslide area into account and concluded it did not pose a problem. But opponents maintain the county hasn't thoroughly investigated the risk.