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City-County Feud Could Stall LAX Plan

Instead of a routine OK, an obscure panel could deal a setback to Mayor Hahn by requiring a council override and delaying timetable.

August 25, 2004|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

Years of bad blood between the city and county over modernizing Los Angeles International Airport could put Mayor James K. Hahn's plan in a holding pattern for months and could even force him to muster a four-fifths vote of the City Council to override the county's objections.

County officials complain that the city has failed repeatedly over the last three years to include them in the airport planning process, while internal memos show city officials believed they could eventually persuade the county to go along with their vision.

But neither entity realized how much influence county officials could ultimately wield over the $9-billion airport plan until it landed before an obscure county commission last week for what city officials assumed would be a perfunctory nod.

Instead, Hahn's airport plan has hit a serious snag.

The five-member Airport Land Use Commission -- which is appointed by the county supervisors, who oppose the proposal -- could deliver a setback as soon as today if it finds Hahn's blueprint violates a 1991 county airport land-use plan.

"There's been an awakening to the relevance" of the commission's crucial role in the airport planning process, said Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who persuaded Hahn to scale back his original proposal to postpone its most controversial elements.

If the commission finds, as county planners have recommended, that the mayor's proposal would expose nearby communities to more noise and safety risks than allowed under the land-use plan, the 15-member City Council would have to muster 10 votes, rather than 8, to override the decision. It would also tack seven weeks onto a tight timetable for Hahn's blueprint because the council must notify the county 45 days in advance that it plans to override the commission's decision.

Even more troubling to city officials, however, is an opinion released by county attorneys last week that concluded communities next to the airport, or even the county, could file an appeal with the commission after a council override. If the commission upheld the appeal, county attorneys found, state law would require 12 City Council votes to override this decision.

With at least six council members still undecided on Hahn's plan, the attorneys' opinion raised concerns at City Hall. If the council failed to find 12 votes to override the commission, according to the attorneys' reasoning, "the entire LAX project would fail and could not proceed under its existing terms."

City attorneys say the county is misinterpreting state law. They believe the city's plan would supersede the county's land-use plan with a council override.

"It's ridiculous," said Carlyle Hall, an attorney hired by the city's airport agency. "They can throw up a roadblock initially, but they've never used the appeal process before, and they don't even have an ordinance to show how it would work."

Until the Airport Land Use Commission's first hearing last week on the plan, neither the county nor the city was fully aware of its role. When Miscikowski's office contacted county staff members to discuss the panel a few months ago, they said it didn't exist.

The city mentioned the commission in memos as far back as 2000, but argued that it would be forced to amend its 13-year-old land-use plan to fit Hahn's proposal, not the other way around.

The commission is required to ensure that master plans drafted by airports in the region comply with the county land-use plan, which monitors noise and safety zones in communities around airports.

Caltrans, the state agency charged with overseeing county airport plans, agrees with the city's view, arguing that Los Angeles County's airport land-use plan is obsolete because it fails to reflect that there are more people living around the airport and more aircraft using the airport than 13 years ago.

"We're waiting for them to take action. We would like to see it resolved," said Deborah Harris, a Caltrans spokeswoman.

Signs of the county's increasing distress over the city's plan, first drafted under Mayor Richard Riordan in the late 1990s, were hard to miss.

In the summer of 2001, the county sued the city's airport agency in federal court, arguing that the 45-day public comment period for Riordan's $12-billion airport expansion plan violated state and federal law.

Supervisors also argued that Riordan's 12,000-page environmental study for the plan was fatally flawed.

These concerns faded after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted Hahn to scrap Riordan's plan and announce his own blueprint, which he said emphasized security and safety over expansion.

To save time, however, Hahn decided to piggyback on the environmental analysis done for Riordan's plan. That angered the supervisors again, and in August 2003 they charged that Hahn's proposal would not limit growth at the airport or make it more secure.

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