Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones wasn't buying the state Department of Fish and Game's conclusion that a plan to preserve the endangered San Fernando Valley spineflower would work just fine once Newhall Land and Farming Co. built its master-planned suburb for 60,000 people off the I-5 near Magic Mountain.
"They were saying 'Trust us,' but she felt the law required more than just a piece of paper signed by somebody with an advanced degree," says John Buse, attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "That's when we knew she had a lot of mettle."
The center joined with Friends of the Santa Clara River, Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment, California Native Plant Society and the Wishtoyo Foundation, and last month won a stunning ruling when Jones rejected the Newhall Ranch Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
Newhall Land immediately appealed.
Jones says the development plan doesn't adequately protect the spineflower and stickleback fish, steelhead habitat, or the water quality of the Santa Clara River, which runs directly through the project.
"It's a fundamental blow to the project," Buse says. It puts in doubt Newhall Land's ability to soon begin its first two subdivisions, Landmark and Mission Villages. Ultimately, the huge neo-suburb would include 5 million square feet of commercial plus 20,000 homes and apartments on about 4,000 acres, with 8,000 acres left open.
Even when they disagree with Jones, lawyers and advocates involved in past major land-use battles describe her with such terms as "very, very bright," "extremely thorough," "fair" and "gutsy." So when Newhall Land alleged a conflict of interest on Jones' part — and asked that Jones voluntarily disqualify herself from the lawsuits over its first two subdivisions — the legal community was incredulous.
Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Marymount University law professor, predicted an "uphill battle" for the deep-pocketed investors out to oust Jones.
Newhall Land attorney Mark Dillon wouldn't comment, nor would Fish and Game spokesman Mike Taugher.
Newhall Land spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer told one newspaper, "We have spent more than a decade and more than $10 million to create the most environmentally sensitive development plan" in county history.
But in her 38-page tome with 63 footnotes, Jones labeled as "cynical" Fish and Game's assertion that any document prepared by a person with an advanced degree should be seen by Jones as substantial evidence supporting that person's views.
Newhall Ranch would be Los Angeles' first suburb in a generation, and is the largest construction project ever approved in Southern California.
Jones made big enemies with her Oct. 15 ruling against the EIR: As of 2009, owners of the 12,000 acres of ridges, meadows and Santa Clara River floodplains included giant Lennar Corp.; multibillion-dollar Wall Street investors Anchorage Advisors and Third Avenue Management; and "funds affiliated with" global investing giant Och-Ziff Capital Management Group and Marathon Asset Management.
Newhall Land claims, among other things, that Jones erred by not disclosing that she once asked a neighbor to back her up in opposing another neighbor's plan to divide his land. Newhall Land says that because the neighbor who sided with Jones is a Sierra Club officer and opponent of New-hall Ranch, Jones has a conflict of interest.
Jones disclosed the dispute with her neighbor long ago, though Dillon, Newhall Land's attorney, counters that was in another case, before Jones asked her neighbor's support in her neighborhood dispute. The judge says she didn't know her neighbor was named in the vast court record.
Says Levenson, "My reaction is we don't readily disqualify judges because they have their own personal legal matters, and when done with this timing (by Newhall) it raises suspicions."
The Los Angeles Times penned an editorial telling the investors to back off Judge Jones.
But then, in a statement to L.A. Weekly, Newhall Ranch's Lauffer was on the attack, writing, "We are at a loss to explain why Judge Jones is fighting so hard to continue to preside over a pair of legal cases ... in which her own conduct has raised serious questions about her ability to remain impartial." Lauffer accused Jones of "apparent conflicts and ethical lapses" as well as "numerous misstatements."
So the battle is engaged.
Frederick Bennett, a court counsel who prepared Jones' response, can recall only six cases in 40 years in which L.A. judges who fought recusal were formally reviewed — by a judge from another county — and then removed from a case.
With allegations of conflict against Jones, her track record is important. It shows that Jones has ruled for both sides, anti- and pro-development.
Stepping into the pitched war in Hollywood over whether it will "go skyscrapers" à la Century City or preserve its longtime plan for a low-slung, historic-based neighborhood, Jones sided with residents fighting the Hollywood-Gower Project, proposed as the tallest skyscraper in Hollywood. On the other hand, she sided with the developer of Emerson College at Sunset Boulevard and Gordon Street after a nearby recording studio claimed noise and other hassles would hurt its business.
The Hollywood-Gower skyscraper ruling showed Jones' steel spine. She ruled that City Hall had engaged in a rare violation of city residents' due process rights, ramming through a skyscraper without having any idea how much it would snarl traffic.
R.J. Comer, former attorney for the group of rich investors seeking to build Hollywood-Gower, still says Jones got the law wrong. But Comer says she also twice ruled in favor of other developer clients of his: Emerson, and in a case involving a recycling facility in the Valley. "Careful," says Comer, of Armbruster, Goldsmith & Delvac, when describing Jones.
Jeffrey L. Caufield, an attorney who won a ruling on behalf of Lakeview Terrace neighbors that stopped City Hall's plan to erect a noisy, industrial, truck-driver "training academy" atop the nearby and long-closed Lopez Canyon landfill, says Jones challenged everyone. The city had promised residents that the landfill would become a park — much as Brentwood saw a golf course and country club, Mountaingate, built atop its landfill in the 1970s.
Caufield says many judges don't read the record "to verify what counsel says is true or not true. She was so well-versed, she was going to certain pages and would say, 'On page X of the record it says this. How do you explain that'?"
Marlene Rader, chairwoman of Community Alliance for Open Space, says Jones was the first powerful person to question the all-but-certain "trucker academy" pushed by City Councilman Richard Alarcon and the Teamsters Union.
In L.A., each council member wields unusual powers to decide what gets built in "their" district, though few of the 15 have formal education or past careers in development. "It was, 'Oh my God, at last somebody listened,' " Rader recalls. "The judge would say, 'So what is the truck route?' and the [city attorney] couldn't answer."
Opponents say slippery city officials did not wish to admit that the big rigs would cram onto a single road, overloading a key intersection. "When I heard we won the case, I started crying," Rader says.
Attorney Noel Weiss said Jones' "guts" and balance have "pissed off the powers that be." She has been papered 109 times — a process in which any lawyer can make a one-time request to be assigned to a new judge without cause.
Weiss represented the Friends of Richard Neutra's Strathmore Apartments against L.A. City Hall and PCC Land Ventures Inc., represented by Comer. Weiss says the neighborhood got no help from its city councilman, Paul Koretz, who basically "straddled the fence" when a developer wanted an extremely dense Westwood Village student housing project, which was woefully short of parking and ugly.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Judge Jones called the city's actions, in which Koretz stayed noticeably on the sidelines, "The biggest pig in a poke I've ever seen. ... No one has looked at this project — except the developer and a very cynical and last-minute approval by a planning commission that never had a hearing on it."
Michael Webb, of Friends of Richard Neutra, says Jones' tough ruling led to a "win-win" settlement. The developer dropped his "student ghetto," and an architect designed a beautiful new structure.
Comer, who represented the developer, insists Jones misapplied the law. But he's careful to add, "She runs a great courtroom, she's very fair and courteous to counsel, and she's willing to follow the rules."
Now, the hedge funds, Lennar and others who own 12,000 rugged acres used for cattle grazing and farming, and slated to be Southern California's newest suburb, will have to decide: Do they really want a fight with Judge Ann I. Jones?