Los Arboles ruling nears
By Jesse Phelps
The Los Arboles housing development, fraught
from the get-go with legal entanglements, has run up against
yet another barrier: a retired judge.
Judge Melinda Johnson, arbiter of the present dispute, was slated
to render a decision on whether the development meets the parameters
laid out in a prior ruling before she removed her robes on Jan.
1, according to both developer Lance Smigel and Citizens to Preserve
the Ojai President Ivor Benci-Woodward.
The proposed 23-unit condominium project, slated for construction
on South Montgomery Street, was first attacked in February of
2001 by the CPO on grounds that its traffic impacts and density
violate the city's own zoning requirements and survived with
the stipulation that changes be made to the plans.
Johnson's initial ruling was that the city had abused its discretion
in approving the project - it was inconsistent regarding the
general plan and the Environmental Quality Act. She threw out
the environmental review report for Los Arboles, citing deficiencies
with the project's traffic impact report, and the developer's
contention that the project's high density was needed to make
Johnson wrote, "The city can only approve the project if
it complies with all elements of the city's General Plan. It
does not do so."
According to Smigel, Los Arboles complied, redid the report,
and tendered back all approvals before the city council voted
again to approve.
"The judge felt allegations were at points inaccurate but
wanted variance in zone change, traffic issues, and wanted Los
Arboles to include reasoning why less dense alternatives would
be economically infeasible. We complied again, clarified traffic,
no longer relied on variance. Now the court is weighing compliance,"
Benci-Woodward disagreed on the newly submitted report. "They
re-approved the project with the same issues," said Benci-Woodward.
"The city council said the project is no different"
than the original, rejected plans. "Whether the judge found
the new plans wrong or right, the city re-approved them, making
an end run around the system."
The city filed the new plans during the Christmas vacation, when,
Benci-Woodward says, the CPO was unable to get a quorum together
to contest them.
"The only group able to file at that time was the Environmental
Coalition. We absolutely support them in the filing of the papers
but we just couldn't logistically join them," Benci-Woodward
The Environmental Coalition contended that the variance granted
to Los Arboles, narrowing the allowed distance between buildings
from 45 to 25 feet, was illegal. The city contends that the variance
no longer matters, since the Ojai General Plan was amended to
allow narrower setbacks.
The new suit, Los Arboles 3, essentially serves as a backup should
Los Arboles 2 fall through the cracks with the retired judge.
At best, the new suit "Won't be heard by a judge for a long
time," according to Benci-Woodward. But if Judge Johnson
rules in the favor of the petitioners, the newest suit would
be dropped, as it would become redundant.
"We expect to get a decision from her shortly," Benci-Woodward
Judge Johnson has been retired for some time and continues to
work on Los Arboles through a special exception. Sources inside
the Judge's offices reported that such exceptions are time-limited
but Judge Johnson herself said she is working diligently to get
through the motions, briefs, and claims.
She said the new documents are "spread out all over my dining
room table." She refrained from commenting about the specifics
of the documents but said she hoped her judgment would "be
out in the fairly near future. Hopefully, next week or so."
The Ojai Valley News
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