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L.A. council to review planning panel's OK of Home Depot

August 01, 2007|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles City Council delivered a setback Tuesday to Home Depot, voting to take up the hardware giant's hotly contested proposal to open a store in the Sunland-Tujunga section of the San Fernando Valley.

Despite lawsuit threats from Home Depot's lobbying team, the council agreed to review the North Valley Area Planning Commission's July 19 decision to approve a store on Foothill Boulevard. "The city exposes itself to significant legal liability when it does not follow the rules, when it does not [uphold] the integrity and objectivity of the permitting process," said Lucinda Starrett, a lawyer and lobbyist with Latham & Watkins.

Home Depot argued that its project, which would be in a former Kmart building, needed only an over-the-counter building permit and not a special review.

But Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who represents the area, said Home Depot's interior renovations were so extensive that the city had no choice but to label it a "project" -- a designation that would force it to go through a more thorough environmental review to study traffic issues and hours of operation.

"If Home Depot had followed the rules initially and been deemed a project two years ago, they would be open today," Greuel said. "So this is not the fault of the city of Los Angeles."

The battle has been closely tracked by neighborhood groups, business leaders and lobbying firms, all of which have watched as the two sides employed bare-knuckled tactics. Home Depot received a building permit for its store last year, only to see it challenged and then overturned by a zoning administrator. After a seven-hour hearing, the area Planning Commission voted 3 to 2 to reinstate the permit.

Home Depot sent at least six lobbyists, some paid community organizers and more than 100 supporters wearing Home Depot T-shirts to Tuesday's meeting.

Opponents sent about 50 people, hired a structural engineer to review the project and created an elaborate website devoted to their cause.

Backers said the city's business climate could be harmed if the company was forced to go through additional environmental review, which could take from four months to a year. Opponents said that approving the Home Depot store would undermine local planning rules tailored to Sunland-Tujunga.

"In the next few weeks, you're going to see a great outpouring from the community" against the project, said Joe Barrett, one of the main organizers of the anti-Home Depot campaign, after the vote.

The council must vote on the project by Aug. 21.

Perhaps more controversial than the project itself was the tightly orchestrated lobbying effort on behalf of the proposed store. Last week, the Los Angeles Daily News obtained a memo showing that Home Depot lobbyist Rick Taylor planned to charge the company $24,000 to feed and deliver 150 people in orange T-shirts to Tuesday's council meeting.

When Home Depot opponents took the memo from the Daily News home page and posted it on their own website, Taylor responded by sending a "cease and desist" letter demanding that it be removed.

Home Depot supporters packed 60% of the council chamber audience seats. Before the meeting started, Taylor attempted to shoo away reporters who sought to interview supporters of the project, saying they needed to focus on the meeting.

As they filed out of the meeting, supporters refused to discuss their reasons for backing the project. But Home Depot lobbyist William Delvac said foes had unfairly disparaged those in the orange T-shirts.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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