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The failed dream of Las Lomas

L.A. City Council voted to end the controversial project on March 19.

Posted: March 31, 2008 4:05 a.m.
Updated: June 1, 2008 5:03 a.m.

Santa Clarita Mayor Bob Kellar, right, and Paul D. Brotzman, director of Community Development for the city, study a map of Las Lomas in front of the property on The Old Road.

 
Next time you're stuck on the Golden State Freeway inside the Newhall Pass, imagine a beehive of townhomes clustered up along the steep eastern ridge.

More than 5,500 housing units almost found a permanent home under the crest of mountains that separate Santa Clarita Valley and the San Fernando Valley.

On paper it was called Las Lomas - a smart growth community, promising to preserve contemporary ideals such as sustainability and public transit.

For many Santa Clarita residents, and all of the Santa Clarita city council, the vision was a nightmare.

For Las Lomas developer Dan S. Palmer it was a vision.

In 2002, Palmer found a foothold in the side of the rugged terrain off The Old Road and set out on an arduous journey through bureaucracy to make his vision a reality.

He lost that footing, however, on March 19, when Los Angeles City Council voted 10-5 to stop any further work on his project.

His critics - worried about increased traffic, a trampled environment, heightened fire hazards - breathed a collective sigh of relief.

His fans, many of whom petitioned city council on the day of the vote, citing more jobs for Los Angeles, an invigorated economy and more affordable housing, suddenly had the wind knocked out of their sails and were saddened to find themselves suddenly sidelined in their 10-year uphill battle.

"We're going to look at all our options," a disappointed Dan Palmer told reporters at City Hall. "We believe Las Lomas is a fine project and we remain committed."

The death of Las Lomas, however, does not mean the death of development.

As you drive back into Santa Clarita, through the Newhall Pass, smug to see to greenery, shrub and rock preserved, where Las Lomas would have been, imagine Santa Clarita as farmland and ranches, dotted with horses and orange groves because that's the way it was.

It was all untouched land, until developers got their hands on it.

Las Lomas, or something like it, is more likely to happen now than it was before.

How?

Because even though Palmer lost the land war, he won many battles over the last 10 years that changed the landscape - literally.

A post-mortem examination of how Las Lomas died reveals a decade-long paper battle almost as rugged as the terrain for which it was planned.

In the end, Las Lomas became the battleground of a land war fought over by two neighboring valleys - Santa Clarita and San Fernando.

Before the city became the City of Santa Clarita, land in the Santa Clarita Valley was exploited by a variety interests: ranchers fenced in horses, oil men dug wells, movie moguls built film sets on dusty pastures and made stars out of cowboy actors like William S. Hart.

In 1984, a handful of land developers including Joel A. Rottman and Norman Burnam looked at a parcel of hilly land off of The Wintershelter wants to stay open Old Road - less than two miles as the crow flies from William S. Hart Park - and obtained a deed for whatever mineral rights the land had to offer. Specified in the grant deed was an interest in ""all oil, gas and other hydrocarbons, substances and other minerals lying below a depth of 500 feet."

That parcel of land become a strategic piece in the Las Lomas plan, sitting between two larger lots. Without this portion of land - about 35 acres - the two lots would not be joined. The lot would become the cornerpiece of Las Lomas.

On Aug. 20, 1998, Palmer acquired his first option to buy three parcels of land in a deal with retired physician Dr. Richard Zauner of San Bernardino and Ghislaine G. Brassine of Chatsworth, the pair's company was called Newhall Calgrove Estates. The parcels they owned made up 73 acres immediately west of the cornerstone property, over the top of what is now the a mobile home park.

In his deal with Newhall Calgrove Estates, Palmer obtained specific authority to develop those 73 acres. He called the plan Las Lomas, Spanish for 'the hills.'

Less than a year later, Palmer signed a similar option agreement with a Second World War veteran and his wife.

Although the agreement was for only two parcels of land, totaling only seven acres, Frederick J. Bergin and his wife Carole D. Bergin, also of the San Fernando Valley, gave express permission for Palmer to also develop their land.

The two smaller Bergin parcels fit snugly on the south side of the Newhall Calgrove properties; total property earmarked for Las Lomas - 80 acres.

Las Lomas really began to take shape in February 2000, however, when Palmer negotiated the details of his option to develop that corner piece of property eyed earlier by other developers for its minerals.

Palmer saw value in homes built for the very northern part of San Fernando Valley.

On Feb. 2, 2000, he acquired an option to purchase 220 acres of land - including the cornerstone parcel eyed by developers in 1984 - which was owned by the trust of Ralph Flora and handled by Santa Monica-based estate lawyers Samuel R. Biggs. These properties registered with the Los Angeles County Assessor's Office as three parcels of land, cascaded down the east side of the very first Las Lomas land purchased by Palmer, wrapping around the trailer park and extending south along The Old Road, almost to Highway 14.

Now Las Lomas - by signed agreements with each of the land owners, all of whom resided in the San Fernando Valley - was 300 acres.

On Aug. 14, 2000, Palmer presented R. Fred McHaddad and his wife Janet E. McHaddad with the same option agreement to sign. The elderly couple who live in Van Nuys provided Palmer with an option to buy 255 acres that sat atop the southern most parcel of the Flora land parcels and pushed all the way to Highway 14.

Armed with option agreements to purchase 555 acres, Palmer put his Las Lomas into action and, on Feb. 22, 2002, notified the Local Agency Formation Commission of Los Angeles County that he intended to circulate a petition among the property owners to annex the 555 acres into the City of Los Angeles.

Hillary Norton Orozoco was made vice president of the Las Lomas Land Co., LLC.
"People are going to find Las Lomas unique and interesting," she told The Signal early this year. "Our goal is to contribute to the region."

On June 18, 2002, Palmer applied to LAFCO to have the agency begin annexation proceedings.

Before any annexation happens, the potential environmental effects have to be tabled in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act. On May 28, 2002, Palmer filed a small one-page Environmental Assessment Form with the Los Angeles City Planning Department.

It wasn't enough.

LAFCO returned the Las Lomas annexation application to Palmer as incomplete and in need an Enviromental Impact Report.

Palmer turned to the City of Los Angeles planning department for help in processing the needed report.

Las Lomas lawyer Carlyle W. Hall Jr. of the law firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP, wrote to The Signal in response to stories about the Las Lomas land applications filed with the planning department.

Hall says in his letter: "Las Lomas has complied with all of the City's requirements for processing the Project EIR, and has paid the City tens of thousands of dollars in processing fees, posted a $10,000 City B Permit fee, and agreed to a Supplemental Fee Agreement with the City to assure full cost-recovery for the City's discretionary permit processing and environmental review."

Once the City of Los Angeles began accepting Las Lomas money for work done processing the Las Lomas project, the city was obligated to continue doing so and, in so doing, became the lead agency on the project.

The city assumed the role of lead agency in late 2002.

At about the same time, the City of Santa Clarita undertook a rival annexation effort and, on Dec. 10, 2002, passed a resolution authorizing city staff to file an annexation application of its own to LAFCO.

Las Lomas sued the City of Santa Clarita requesting the court order Santa Clarita to set aside its annexation efforts.

Exactly one year after Santa Clarita took a stand against Las Lomas, Las Lomas applied to Los Angeles planning department for permission "merging of 14 parcels into one single lot for financing purposes."

On Feb. 8, The Signal reported that the application dated Dec. 10, 2003, signed by Dan Palmer listed Las Lomas Land Company , LLC., as both the owner and the applicant.

In his letter explaining the position of the company, Hall points out that the company had repeatedly attached "option agreements" to all planning documents. In the particular case of the 2003 request, Hall explains that the county application form provides only "three short lines for the name, address and city of the "record owners" and the same for the "applicant" and for the "applicant's agent."

"In completing the abbreviated form, Las Lomas consultant, Robert Sims, identified Las Lomas as both the record owners and the applicant and identified himself as the applicant's agent.

Having previously received authorization to sign and process all documents necessary to develop the real property, Dan Palmer, President of Las Lomas, executed the application form on behalf of the record owners and indicated with his signature that all such record owners consented to the request for lot consolidation."

As Palmer continued with his efforts to merge 14 lots into one manageable unit, Santa Clarita answered with another request made to LAFCO, this time for a "Sphere of Influence" judgment.

LAFCO split the sphere of influence over the Las Lomas land right down the ridge line of the mountains, the north half went to Santa Clarita, the south half to San Fernando.

Palmer sued Santa Clarita again.

San Fernando got behind Palmer when Councilman Richard Alarcon put forward a motion in February 2007 to have the city enter into a Supplemental Fee Agreement with Palmer.

The deal called for Palmer to pay for planning staff to process the required EIR but, at the same time, expedited the project.

But, the fatal shot that killed Las Lomas and ended the land war of two valleys came not from the valley folks so vigorously opposed to Las Lomas, but from the city Las Lomas developer Dan Palmer had turned to for help.

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