Thursday, May 10, 2007

Agoura Hills will reconsider EIR for commercial project

Agoura Hills officials say they won't appeal a Superior Court judge's recent decision requiring the city to set aside key documents necessary for the development of an ambitious retail and commercial project called Agoura Village.

Instead, the City Council tonight will be asked to decertify the environmental impact report for the proposed development and revoke its previous approval of the Agoura Village Specific Plan, which laid out a vision for the 135-acre project area near Agoura and Kanan roads.

"We're going to comply with the decision," City Attorney Craig Steele said.

The council will also be asked to approve a consulting contract, not to exceed $55,000, to complete the biological plant and animal study deemed necessary by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant.

In his April 20 decision, Chalfant found that the city's environmental impact report fell short of analyzing the site in sufficient detail and relied on outdated sources for the information that was included.

"The city's failure lies primarily in a lack of biological surveys," Chalfant wrote. "Knowledge of the regional biological setting is critical to the EIR's assessment, and special emphasis was required for sensitive plants and wildlife.

"While the EIR need not perform an environmental analysis of specific developmental projects, it must describe the environmental setting in sufficient detail to appraise readers of the nature of the environmental resources affected by the project."

The suit against Agoura Hills was filed by Mary Altmann, who lives in the unincorporated area of Lakeside, near Malibou Lake in the Santa Monica Mountains south of Agoura Hills.

Altmann, who represented herself, said she was pleased with the judge's decision, although she wished it had gone further.

"I thought it was a conservative ruling," she said. "I was hoping to be affirmed on some other points. I am very happy with what I did win."

Agoura Village, envisioned as a pedestrian-friendly, vibrant development with multifamily housing and shops, has been in the works for nearly a decade.

Altmann said she was moved to file the suit because she felt that not only were the documents required for the development deficient, but she also worried about the effects it would have on the area's safety.

"It's a very high fire area," Altmann said. "I feel they are just choking this area with traffic. On beach days, if there is a fire, we can't get out to the 101 (freeway) and they didn't address these issues."

The project is divided into three areas. Applications have been filed for two of the areas. Both applications are in the concept review stage, Agoura Hills Senior Planner Allison Cook said.

The Agoura Village issue will be heard by the council at a special meeting tonight at 6:30 at the Civic Center, 30001 Ladyface Court.

Judge rules further study needed for Agoura Village

Judge rules further study needed for Agoura Village
Environmental report inadequate
By Stephanie Bertholdo

A 135-acre swath just south of the 101 Freeway at Agoura Road is poised to one day become Agoura Village, a new commercial and residential town center, but city officials hit a snag in their development plans following a court order for additional environmental studies.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant ruled April 20 that the city of Agoura Hills must prepare biological plant and animal surveys to address the environmental impact of the project.
Agoura Village is envisioned by city officials as a pedestrian-friendly town center with a mix of retail, residential and commercial businesses.
Chalfant's ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed by Malibou Lakeside resident Mary Altmann.
Altmann's suit alleged the Agoura Village Specific Plan, a planning document that outlines the city's vision of Agoura Village, violates seven laws and codes from an inadequate Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
The lawsuit sought to stop or delay the Agoura Village plan based on several allegations. It cites CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) and municipal code violations, failure to identify safety issues and alternatives to the project, misrepresentation of the project's size, and inadequate mitigation measures.
The court commanded the city to "set aside its approval of the Agoura Village Specific Plan, the EIR, and the zoning amendment."
The city is required to prepare an environmental review that includes "timely biological data, support replanting through appropriate expert evidence, and provide a more complete discussion of why a reduced specific plan alternative does not meet project objectives."
According to Altmann, "Originally Agoura Village had been intended to be an environmentally friendly mixed-use development showcasing this pristine area as the 'gateway to the Santa Monica Mountains.'"
Due to its size and potential threat to open space and the environment, she called the project "controversial."
Altmann, who filed her suit last July, founded a group called Citizens for Sensitive Development to challenge the plan, but when legal costs skyrocketed, she conducted her own research and filed the lawsuit on her own. Had she been unsuccessful, the court could have required her to bear the burden of the city's attorney fees, she said.
"Although we are disappointed that the judge found a deficiency in the biological studies and some related text in the EIR, we were gratified that Judge Chalfant denied every other challenge brought by Ms. Altmann," city attorney Craig Steele said.
"He flatly disposed of every claim regarding General Plan consistency and other land use issues, he found that the city had accurately and completely defined the scope of the AVSP (Agoura Village Specific Plan), he denied challenges to the city's notice procedures, he saw through false claims about redesignation of open space and, significantly . . . he stated that 'in all other respects, the EIR is adequate,'" Steele said.
City officials believe detailed biological studies should be done on a project-by-project basis.
The "AVSP does not approve any development project," Steele said. "We respectfully disagree with Judge Chalfant's position that such detail is required or even informative now, at the broad planning stage. Nonetheless, we anticipate that the city will comply with the judge's order."
The cost of the biological study could be in the "tens of thousands of dollars," Steele said. "The unfortunate and unnecessary impact of Ms. Altmann's lawsuit is that the city's taxpayers will foot the bill for the detailed biological study initially, instead of the future developers who actually could create the potential biological impacts down the road."
"I am thankful for our justice system, and that justice prevailed in this case," Altmann said.