Thursday, May 10, 2007

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.

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