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State Threatens to Sue L.A. County Over Planned Castaic Lake Closure

Due to a lack of funding, the popular recreation area is slated to shut down Sept. 7.

August 30, 2003|Michael Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

Despite a threat by the state to sue if Castaic Lake State Recreation Area closes, Los Angeles County officials said Friday they cannot afford to keep it open after Sept. 7.

California officials say Los Angeles County is legally bound to keep the facility open since it signed a 50-year contract with the state in 1969 to maintain, control and operate the lake.

In an Aug. 22 letter to the county, state Deputy Atty. Gen. Todd Valdes wrote: "Any such failure by the county to perform as required by the operating agreement [of 1969] would be improper, constitute a material breach of the operating agreement ... "

The letter concluded: "For the county to propose unilaterally breaching its legal obligations of 34 years and summarily abandoning its duty to protect the health and safety of the thousands who enjoy Castaic Lake is clearly unlawful."

But county officials maintain that the state is causing the closure.

"We believe Castaic Lake is a very important recreational place for county residents and for the economy of the surrounding community, but the state has fleeced our budget so much [that] the county can no longer afford to maintain it," said Tony Bell, spokesman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the area.

The 2,432-acre lake, popular for water-skiing, power boating, fishing, swimming and picnicking, generates about $1 million annually from fees, according to Sheila Ortega, spokeswoman for the county Department of Parks and Recreation. However, the county spends roughly $3.8 million a year on employees, maintenance and security at the site.

Valdes declined to discuss the state's position, saying that it was "office policy not to discuss pending litigation."

County and state officials still hope that an agreement can be reached to keep from closing the lake, which has as many as 800,000 visitors a year.

"We are hoping and working behind the scenes with the county," said Steve Capps, a spokesman for California State Parks. "But we believe it's [Los Angeles County's] solution to find."

Both sides said they would like to keep the lake open.

"It's critical for recreational purposes and for the local economy that the lake remains open," said state Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge).

"What's important is that the state and the county work together to ensure it stays open. But, the county can't simply walk away from their contractual responsibilities."

County officials will meet Tuesday to discuss the situation, but, Ortega said: "Right now, though, it's pretty much with the attorneys."

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