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Inland Builder Assails Water Board

Panel that levied a $422,000 penalty against him is called 'out of control.' A judge last week dismissed the fine.

November 17, 2005|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Following a judge's decision to throw out a nearly half-million-dollar fine against him, a Riverside County developer reacted Wednesday against the regional water board that had levied the penalty.

"I feel that that board is completely out of control," said Bill Johnson, a property-rights advocate who has clashed with environmental groups over the years. "This is government at its worst."

Believing that he had been unfairly targeted, he said he would seek damages against the California Regional Water Quality Control Board in San Diego.

The board, which has jurisdiction over parts of Riverside County, imposed a $422,000 fine against Johnson in February 2002. The board alleged that Johnson had failed to obtain proper construction and environmental permits before digging out access roads on a 132-acre property he owns near Vail Lake in southwest Riverside County.

But last week, San Diego Superior Court Judge Richard Strauss ruled that the board did not have sufficient evidence against Johnson and dismissed the fine.

Johnson said he carved out fire-road extensions in summer 1999 to maneuver around his property, not as part of a construction project. He was hoping to plant grapes for a vineyard, he said.

Johnson owns about 9,000 acres of vacant land around Temecula, and estimates that he has developed nearly 90,000 acres of real estate in the region since the 1970s.

The water quality board maintains that Johnson was planning to build on the site, and that the grading he had performed stripped the land of vegetation and had the potential to create harmful storm runoff.

"Our original position is unchanged," John Robertus, the board's executive officer, said Wednesday, adding the agency probably would appeal the judge's decision.

"We still think he was building a road network for ... the purpose of developing a residential area," Robertus said.

Johnson's attorney, Craig M. Collins, said there were no formal plans for the land, but Johnson could eventually build a resort complex and residential units on the site.

Johnson has paid two previous grading and erosion-related fines of more than $100,000 each, according to the water quality board.

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