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Newhall Land alleges judge presiding over its cases has conflict

Attorneys for the company accuse Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones of failing to disclose her work with environmentalists in an effort to stop a land division near her Santa Clarita Valley home.

November 03, 2012|By Ann Simmons and Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times

The Newhall Land and Farming Co. has filed a motion in Los Angeles County Superior Court alleging that a judge presiding over its controversial development cases has a conflict of interest and asking that she disqualify herself.

In the motion filed Thursday, attorneys for Newhall Land accuse Judge Ann I. Jones of failing to disclose her work with environmentalists in an effort to stop a property near her Santa Clarita Valley home from being divided.

Among those environmentalists were Sierra Club members who also oppose Newhall Land's proposed community of 60,000 residents along a six-mile stretch of the Santa Clara River, about 35 miles north of Los Angeles and four miles from Jones' home.

The Newhall Ranch project has languished for more than a decade amid heavy opposition. In June, several environmental groups sued the California Department of Fish and Game for allegedly failing to adequately assess the project's potential environmental effects.

In September, Jones issued a preliminary ruling that the project's environmental impact report was flawed and should be redone. The action supported concerns raised by environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, that the sprawling development would harm water quality, downstream communities and several endangered species, including the San Fernando Valley spineflower, the unarmored threespine stickleback fish and the California condor.

In her ruling, Jones, who is presiding over three cases challenging Newhall Land, also questioned the justification for the project — an "unmet need for housing" in that section of the Santa Clarita Valley.

Jones' attorney, Stanley W. Lamport, was unavailable for comment.

Newhall Land has appealed Jones' ruling and now wants her off all Newhall Land cases, arguing that she has shown bias in favor of environmentalists.

"We have spent more than a decade and more than $10 million to create the most environmentally sensitive development plan in Los Angeles County history," Newhall Land spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer said in a prepared statement. "As our motion makes clear, we are hopeful that Judge Jones voluntarily recuses herself so that we can resolve pending litigation as expeditiously as possible."

Lawyers for Newhall Land claim that three days before a hearing on the environmental impact report, Jones submitted a letter to the city of Santa Clarita's planning commission opposing the split of the lot near her home. Among the 22 signatures on Jones' petition were those of two local Sierra Club members, according to the motion.

"Judges have a duty to make their decisions free from any bias or prejudice," their motion read. "Even the mere appearance of impropriety, bias or prejudice mandates recusal in order to maintain the perception in the eye of the public of the complete impartiality and fairness of the courts at all times."

John Buse, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, disputed the allegation of bias.

"I don't think the grounds for disqualification presented in the motion are valid," Buse said. "Essentially, Judge Jones ruled against them in the state Fish and Game Department case and, in a separate matter, she seems to have hostility toward a proposal on a lot near her home. It's a stretch to try to connect those issues."

ann.simmons@latimes.com

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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