A farmhouse sits near the site of the proposed Newhall Ranch housing development. (Los Angeles Times )
The battle between environmentalists and the developers of the sprawling Newhall Ranch property in Santa Clarita has been long and contentious, and it shows signs of only getting more so.
The stakes are high for all — the developers of one of the largest residential and commercial projects in the county, the environmentalists who have fought to preserve wild open space there, the endangered creatures and flora that flourish in that habitat.
And much of what happens rests in the hands of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones, an expert on the state's environmental regulations, who was assigned to hear three cases filed against the project. The most significant of them, brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, contested the environmental impact report and plans for a conservation program. In that case, Jones ruled recently that the report was flawed and needed to be redone, a huge setback for the developers, who filed an appeal Tuesday.
Now the developers have filed a motion to disqualify the judge from sitting on the other two cases, arguing that she has a conflict of interest. It seems that Jones, who lives in Santa Clarita, is engaged in a property dispute with a next-door neighbor over his desire to split his lot. To fight his application to the Santa Clarita Planning Commission, Jones marshaled support from other neighbors in the community. One of those neighbors, who signed a petition supporting Jones' complaint and spoke against the lot-splitting proposal before the commission, was a local Sierra Club activist named Sandra Cattell.
Here's the alleged conflict: One of the two Newhall cases the judge is expected to hear was filed by several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club. Cattell is related to the Newhall matter only in that she voiced her concerns about the development at a 2009 public hearing before the California Department of Fish and Game. So her name shows up in the 250,000-page record of the case that the judge had to pore over. The judge said she never saw Cattell's name in the record and didn't know Cattell was a Sierra Club member.
Jones has refused to step down, and that's the right decision. A judge should be disqualified from a case only if an observer, knowing all the facts, would reasonably doubt the judge could be impartial. This situation doesn't meet that standard. The connection between the judge and the Sierra Club is tenuous. Merely getting help on a private matter from a neighbor — who turns out to be a Sierra Club activist — is not enough to suggest the judge would be compromised in her judgment on the Newhall Ranch cases.
There are many serious issues in this time-consuming confrontation. This is not one of them. The developers should drop their efforts to disqualify Jones.