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LAS LOMAS FOES SEEK TO APPLY THE BRAKES.

Byline: Kerry Cavanaugh and Beth Barrett

Staff Writers

A routine deal to recoup city processing expenses has turned into a bitter, politically connected battle over the proposed 5,500- home Las Lomas development just outside L.A. city limits.

Under a supplemental fee agreement, Las Lomas developers would pay for all the staff needed to process the project's applications to annex into the city and allow it to access city services.

The deal speeds up review, but it is usually used for major projects already within city limits. Opponents now want to block the pact, saying it could obligate annexation of the 555-acre development on the last open space between L.A. and Santa Clarita.

"The city has never accepted this project," North Valley Councilman Greig Smith said. "We don't have to do this, and we should not do this."

Smith has hired his own attorney to help make the case that L.A. should stop processing the project's environmental impact report -- a move that could doom Las Lomas because the report is also required for annexation into the city.

But City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo's office has issued a legal opinion that the city can't stop processing the project now because it already has accepted fees from the development and begun the work.

The Las Lomas Land Co. has offered to pay the city's legal costs if opponents sue over the fee agreement, which is set to be considered by the council's Budget and Finance Committee tonight.

"The city attorney opined that we had to proceed," said Northeast Valley Councilman Richard Alarcon, who introduced the fee-for-staff-time deal. "By proceeding in this way, they have to pay the costs of the planning department instead of the taxpayers."

Alarcon gave new life to Las Lomas' long-stalled project application last year when he introduced the motion for the fee deal.

On June 12, lawyers for the county agency that handles annexation sent a letter to the developer's lawyers reiterating that Las Lomas' request for annexation would not be considered until the project had a city- approved environmental report.

Las Lomas has been working with the city for more than five years on an environmental report.

Two weeks later, on June 26, Alarcon introduced a motion to allow Las Lomas Land Co. to enter into a supplemental fee agreement that would help speed up the report. On the same day, Alarcon got $1,000 for his officeholder's account from Las Lomas Land Co. President Dan S. Palmer Jr. and his wife, Ashley Palmer. Both contributed $500, city records show.

Since 2006, Alarcon has received $6,500 in contributions to his officeholder account from Las Lomas Land Co. officials, their spouses, relatives or other entities associated with the project.

That includes a total of $3,500 in contributions in the week prior to the fee-agreement motion, and $500 three days later, city ethics commission records show.

Alan Joelson, president of Southbrook Corp. and part of Las Lomas Land Co., said the contributions to Alarcon on June 21 were not intended to influence his position on the project.

Records show Joelson, along with five others related to the company, contributed $3,000 to Alarcon's officeholder account. Each gave $500.

"We made the contributions because we admired Mr. Alarcon's record and thought he was a very good city councilman, and we wanted to support him," Joelson said. "We didn't make a contribution for him to support (the project)."

Joelson noted the company has made contributions over the years to other council members.

Alarcon said he was not aware of the timing of the contributions and said he has a fundraiser who helps reach out to prospective donors.

Asked if the contributions could leave the impression of influence on his decision-making, Alarcon said: "People will perceive it whichever way they want. The motion is making them pay. The fact is I'm trying to shield taxpayers from their burden with this motion."

Since 2000, Dan and Ashley Palmer have contributed more than $36,000 to city officeholders and candidates.

Las Lomas Project Manager Hilary Norton Orozco said donations are designed to show support for elected officials.

"The contributions to the officeholder account have nothing to do with whether or not Richard was going to do legislation for us," said Norton Orozco, who contributed $500 to Alarcon's officeholder account on June20. "The (supplemental fee agreement) is a bill. It's not like an elected official gave us a fee waiver for $300,000."

Norton Orozco was Alarcon's planning deputy in the mid-1990s before becoming former Councilman Richard Alatorre's chief of staff. Alatorre is registered as a Las Lomas lobbyist.

Norton Orozco is not a registered lobbyist, which means she is not subject to rules barring lobbyists from making campaign contributions. Records show she contributed $1,500 to council members' officeholder accounts in the past year.

"Giving to officeholder accounts is a routine and important way for elected officials to do their business," she said. "I have never in my work seen it affect how business is done. It's part of understanding how politicians need to get their message out."

About a month and a half after Alarcon's motion -- on Aug.7 -- the city's Planning and Land Use Management Committee heard the Alarcon motion with the two attending members -- Jose Huizar and Ed Reyes -- recommending approval.

Huizar, a former land-use attorney at Weston Benshoof, received a $500 contribution for his election campaign on April20 from Norton Orozco.

Huizar's staff said he worked at Weston Benshoof from 1999 through 2001 but did not deal with Las Lomas. He consulted the city attorney and was advised there were no conflicts with his vote on the fee agreement.

Reyes got $500 in April for his officeholder account from Norton Orozco's husband, Gerard Orozco. Orozco also gave $5,600 to Delgadillo's campaign for California attorney general, according to secretary of state records.

One of the Las Lomas Land Co.'s attorneys, Jerry Neuman with the law firm Allen Matkins, was Delgadillo's campaign treasurer in 2002. Neuman has not been directly involved with the project recently, Las Lomas officials said.

When Delgadillo ran for attorney general, both Dan Palmer and Ashley Palmer contributed $5,600 each to his campaign.

The City Attorney's Office said the legal opinion that the city cannot stop processing the Las Lomas EIR has nothing to do with Delgadillo's campaign activities.

"The career attorneys in this office regularly provide the council with expert legal opinions on land use matters on behalf of the city attorney -- and the only thing that influences their analysis is the law," Delgadillo spokesman Nick Velasquez said.

"They submit their expert legal advice with zero regard for who gave money to whom."

kerry.cavanaugh(at)dailynews.com

213-978-0390
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 4, 2008
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