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A Bulldozer-Sized Loophole

March 25, 2003

No bigger than a dime, the San Fernando Valley spineflower has gained notoriety beyond its diminutive size for its role in stalling two multibillion-dollar housing developments. Now it is helping uncover a hole the size of a giant sequoia in the way Los Angeles County handles environmental reviews.

The tiny wildflower, once thought to be extinct, was rediscovered in 1999 on the oak-covered hills of Ahmanson Ranch, site of a proposed 3,050-home subdivision in Ventura County just west of West Hills. Say what you will about the planned development -- and its well-heeled opponents say plenty -- the developer, Ahmanson Land Co., was upfront about the discovery and set about finding ways to preserve the plant and still build its houses.

Not so 18 miles north at Newhall Ranch, site of a proposed 21,600-home development in Los Angeles County, just west of the Santa Clarita Valley. State and local regulators had to resort to aerial surveillance and search warrants to determine whether the property held more spineflowers than the single patch an environmental consultant identified in 2000.

The Times, using court records and interviews, reported last fall that investigators found evidence that the land company had crushed additional stands when it graded a mesa and had spread alfalfa through other spineflower areas, allegedly to entice cattle to graze on the plants.

Last month Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, showing no spine for prosecuting a company known for generous political donations, dropped a criminal investigation in exchange for Newhall agreeing to do what the Ahmanson developer had done from the beginning: create a preserve for the flowers that remain.

That would be the end of this sorry story -- except that the search for the missing spineflowers also turned up some missing safeguards in Los Angeles County's review process. In Ventura County, local governments select consultants to do environmental reports, then bill the developer.

Astoundingly, in Los Angeles County the developer not only pays but chooses the consultant. This cozy arrangement might have gone on for years had not Newhall made it even more incestuous by requiring its consultants to sign a confidentiality agreement. Local and state regulators had so much trouble investigating the case because the consultants refused to answer their questions.

California Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) has introduced legislation that would prohibit developers statewide from directly hiring consultants to do the required environmental reports. Newhall and other builders plan to fight it. Los Angeles County supervisors don't have to wait for the skirmish to play out. They can and should put the county, not the developer, in charge of environmental reviews.

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