Environmentalists have filed a lawsuit to halt development of Fanita Ranch in Santee, the scene of nearly three decades of suburban San Diego growth battles. In December, the Santee City Council approved a plan from Barratt-American for 1,380 homes, most on half-acre lots, as well as a small commercial district and several parks. A little more than half of the 2,600-acre site would be set aside as open space with an extensive trail system.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Endangered Habitats League and the group Preserve Wild Santee filed a suit in January that contends the project conflicts with a multiple species habitat conservation plan for the region. The site contains critical habitat for the endangered California gnatcatcher, a rare butterfly and the San Diego fairy shrimp, according to the environmentalists. They also contend the environmental impact report inadequately addresses water supply, air quality, traffic and grading.

In 1980, developers proposed 14,000 housing units on the Fanita Ranch. Those plans and subsequent proposals went nowhere. In 1999, the city approved a 3,000-unit project for the site, but voters rejected the project during a referendum election (see CP&DR Local Watch, September 1999). In 2005, however, nearly two-thirds of Santee voters rejected an initiative that sought to block development near water courses and on steep slopes — an initiative aimed directly at Fanita Ranch and the Rattlesnake Mountain area.

A congressionally appointed commission quietly has recommended approximately tripling the federal gasoline tax and overhauling federal transportation programs. In a plan released in mid-January, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission recommended raising the gas tax by 5 cents to 8 cents per gallon annually for five consecutive years beginning in 2009, and indexing the tax for inflation thereafter. The federal gas tax is currently 18.4 cents per gallon.

The commission also recommended consideration of a vehicle-miles-traveled fee, congestion pricing on metropolitan highways, new freight fees, and ticket taxes on rail riders. The revenue would help fund a dramatically increased $225 billion annual federal transportation program. Three commission members, all with ties to the Bush administration, dissented from the gas tax recommendation.

Congress appointed the 12-member committee, including Metropolitan Transportation Commission Executive Director Steve Heminger from the Bay Area, two years ago. The panel identified many shortcomings in highway and rail infrastructure, and in federal programs. The group recommended increased federal spending, creation of a new National Surface Transportation Commission modeled on the Base Closure and Realignment Commission that would oversee a new national strategic planning process, accelerating project delivery times, and replacing more than 100 existing federal programs based primarily on modes of transportation with 10 outcome-based programs.

The commission's report is available at www.transportationfortomorrow.org

The largest Bay Area development advocacy group has endorsed the adoption of mandatory green building standards in the nine-county region. The Home Builders Association of Northern California (HBANC) is urging all cities and counties in the region to adopt the Green Point Rated program of the Berkeley-based Build It Green organization. The builders group said its goal is to reduce new home energy consumption to 50% of 1990 levels by 2020, and reduce carbon emissions to 30% less than 1990 levels during the same period.

The Green Point Rated system offers points based on features such as improved insulation, building orientation to the sun, solar panels, improved window glazing, energy-efficient lighting and appliances, and low-water landscaping. The program guidelines and points calculator are available at www.builditgreen.org.

The HBANC is the first industry group in the country to back mandatory green building standards, a concept that the industry has fought in the past. The group did so partly because cities and counties have started adopting disparate rules.

An audit by Caltrans has questioned the City of Placentia's expenditure of $36.2 million in state funds for a project that called for lowering five miles of railroad tracks through the northern Orange County city. Caltrans is demanding Placentia repay about $11.4 million of the money, which the state contends was misused for land purchases or used to pay expenses authorized by a project manager who faces criminal prosecution for conflict-of-interest. Caltrans is also demanding the city return nearly $25 million unless the city can justify how it spent the money.

The audit, conducted at the request of Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), is the latest chapter in a saga that has consumed the city. In 2000, the city started planning for a project known as OnTrac. It involved placing five miles of freight and passenger train tracks in a 35-foot-deep trench and building a series of overpasses. The idea was to eliminate eight at-grade crossings of the tracks in anticipation of train traffic roughly tripling to about 150 trains per day over 20 years (see CP&DR Public Development, February 2005). Estimated project costs started at about $300 million but topped $600 million by the time the city pulled the plug on the project in 2005 after having built only one overpass.

Less than a year later, the Orange County grand jury indicted former City Administrator Robert D'Amato and former Public Works Director and OnTrac consultant Christopher Becker on two conflict-of-interest charges stemming from the city's $4.5 million consulting contract with Becker while he was still a city employee (see CP&DR In Brief, May 2006).

City officials, most of whom have turned over since the OnTrac era, disputed Caltrans' findings and said they would fight the repayment.

Three environmental organizations have dropped a California Environmental Quality Act lawsuit that charged San Bernardino County with ignoring the impact of a new general plan on global climate change. Attorney General Jerry Brown settled a similar lawsuit in August 2007, but the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society kept their suit alive.

The groups agreed to drop the suit when the county Board of Supervisors agreed to: hire a consultant to help develop a greenhouse gas emissions reductions plan and to complete the plan by March 2010; create a map-based database for identifying important plants and animals, and wildlife corridors; and adopt new guidelines by July 1 for approving development plans and projects as a way of protecting native species and important plants and animals. The county further agreed to update a hazard mitigation plan to address population growth and roads in hazardous areas.

Diablo Grande — the controversial golf course resort and subdivision in the hills of western Stanislaus County — has gone on the market for $150 million.

Diablo Grande gained prominence during the 1990s because of litigation challenging the water analysis contained in the project's environmental impact report. Ultimately, a state appellate court issued a landmark decision saying that a local government may not defer analysis of a complete project's long-term water source (Stanislaus Natural Heritage Project v. County of Stanislaus, (1996) 48 Cal.App4th 182; see CP&DR Legal Digest, September 1996). The ruling helped spur legislation aimed at ensuring local governments do not approve large projects without an assurance that water will be available.

Stanislaus County supplemented the Diablo Grande EIR and successfully defended subsequent litigation. In 2004, environmentalists reached a settlement with Diablo Grande developers that designates nearly half of the site for the endangered California red-legged frog and San Joaquin kit fox.

The 30,000-acre project calls for 5,000 to 10,000 housing units, six golf courses, a hotel, a conference center, a winery and a commercial center. So far, however, only two golf courses, a winery and fewer than 500 houses have been built, although the county has approved 2,000 lots. Developers Donald Panoz and J. Morton  Davis put the project up for sale at the start of the year.

One of the most contentious historic preservation battles in the state concluded with the Los Angeles Unified School District paying $4 million into a fund for historic school preservation in exchange for the Los Angeles Conservancy dropping a lawsuit that sought to preserve the Cocoanut Grove nightclub. The Cocoanut Grove was the last remaining portion of the Ambassador Hotel.

Built during the early 1920s, the Ambassador was a center of Los Angeles culture and politics for decades. It was where Sirhan Sirhan shot Bobby Kennedy on the night that Kennedy won the 1968 California Democratic primary election for president. The 500-room hotel on Wilshire Boulevard closed in 1989, and the school district acquired the 24-acre property in bankruptcy court proceedings during 2001. The district planned to wipe the site clean and build a three-school facility for 4,200 students. The conservancy sued to force the school district to refurbish the hotel for use as a school but eventually accepted a plan to keep only the Cocoanut Grove as a high school auditorium.

Construction began about two years ago. In late 2007, the school district adopted a revised plan that called for demolishing the nightclub, which the district said could not be incorporated safely into the new campus. The conservancy sued again, but the two sides settled the case in early January.

A plan for off-reservation Indian casinos in Barstow appears to have died. The Interior department in January rejected applications to take land into trust in Barstow for the Los Coyotes Band of Mission Indians from San Diego County, the Big Lagoon Rancheria from Humboldt County and the Chemehuevi tribe from the Lake Havasu area. The Los Coyotes Band and the Big Lagoon tribe proposed building two casinos along Interstate 15 in Barstow, rather than pursuing casinos on their remote reservations (see CP&DR Deals, August 2006). Gov. Schwarzenegger signed agreements with the two tribes for the off-reservation casinos, although the Legislature never ratified the compacts. The Chemehuevi band proposed a competing plan that never got as far as the other two.

The Interior department rejected the applications because of the distances between the tribes' reservations and the proposed casino location. The Los Coyotes Band said it would again seek approval after a new president takes office in 2009. The Big Lagoon tribe, however, said it would build a small casino and resort on the coast north of Eureka.

The Madera County Board of Supervisors has rebuffed a county grand jury recommendation to replace the members of a water advisory committee. In a report issued in November 2007, the grand jury said the four members of the committee — two real estate brokers, a commercial real estate developer and a dairy farmer — were unqualified to make recommendations on water policy and should be replaced. In a formal response filed in January, the Board of Supervisors said the members are qualified and would remain in place.

The grand jury report arrived several months after a Board of Supervisors' decision to abolish a semi-independent, 14-member water oversight committee and replace it with a five-member advisory commission. The new commission has only four members because Supervisor Frank Bigelow disagreed with dumping the old committee and has refused to appoint anyone to the new commission.

Water is a sensitive subject in Madera County partly because of past proposals by private companies to create a groundwater bank southwest of Madera for the purpose of selling water to urban areas. None of those proposals went anywhere, although the public Madera Irrigation District is now considering a groundwater bank.

Former San Bernardino County figures convicted in a corruption scandal lost their appeal over an order to pay the county $10.6 million in restitution. The Second District Court of Appeal upheld the jury's verdict against former County Administrative Officer Harry Mays, former garbage company executive Kenneth Walsh and billboard company owner Shep McCook.

A jury ordered those men and former County Administrative Officer James Hlawek, who succeeded Mays, to pay the county after finding Mays, Hlawek and Walsh jointly liable for fraud, unfair competition, unjust enrichment and breach of fiduciary responsibility. Federal prosecutors also won bribery convictions against the three. Walsh and Mays bribed Hlawek so that Walsh's company, Norcal Waste Systems, could expand its control of the county's waste management services. McCook provided bribes so he could erect billboards on county-owned land — a scandal that also involved Supervisor Gerald Eaves, who has since left office.

The appellate court determined, "The remedy fashioned by the trial court is an equitable form of forfeiture that is utilitarian in its design and serves the community by strongly discouraging the avarice of corrupt politicians and the burden of contracts tainted by conflicts of interest." The case is County of San Bernardino v. Walsh, No. B185391, 2007 DJDAR 19064, and was filed on December 27, 2007.

Embattled San Francisco Supervisor Ed Jew resigned from office in mid-January. In November 2007, a federal grand jury indicted Jew on five counts of bribery, fraud and extortion for allegedly shaking down businesses in need of permits. The federal indictment followed state charges that Jew falsely claimed to live in San Francisco's Sunset District when he ran for office in 2006. Prosecutors maintain that the Chinatown flower shop owner lives in suburban Burlingame.

Although Proposition 13 eliminated local government agencies' ability to set property tax rates, a new report by the Senate Local Government Committee makes clear that local governments still have extensive taxing authority. A detailed reference paper, "Revenues and Responsibilities," outlines the taxing powers of cities, counties and special districts. The publication is available on the committee website, www.sen.ca.gov/locgov.