Cassie MacDuff

Cassie MacDuff

Published: 03 October 2011 07:35 PM

A defunct developer has left San Bernardino County owing more than $750,000 in legal fees from a lawsuit over a mountain housing tract that was approved in violation of environmental laws.

Hawarden Development had promised to pay for the county’s legal defense if it was sued after approving the 57-home Blue Ridge tract near Lake Arrowhead in 2005. Four environmental groups filed suit.

In 2007, a judge ruled the county violated its general plan by failing to require the developer to build an evacuation route to Highway 18.

In 2008, an appellate court broadened the ruling, saying the county also had failed to require the developer to prove there was adequate water for the project.

Earlier this year, Hawarden Development ceased to exist. The developer’s promise to cover the county’s legal costs isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

Mountain residents bitterly fought the Hawarden tract before the Board of Supervisors overrode their concerns in 2005 and approved it despite the serious flaws.

The county and Hawarden fought the lawsuit and lost, then continued fighting to reduce legal fees they owed to the environmental groups’ lawyers. In June, a retired judge was brought in to referee the dispute.

Late Friday, the environmental groups learned they had won. The court ordered the county to pay $757,451 to the lawyers.

A county spokesman said earlier that no one could remember a developer going out of business and leaving the county holding the bag this way. The incident shows the danger of violating the law, even when someone else promises to foot the bill.

On another subject, I wrote a letter last week to the San Bernardino International Airport Authority informing the board and staff that the agency was in violation of the California Public Records Act.

It failed to respond to a request I filed in person at the authority’s counter Sept. 13.

Some of the material I requested — agenda and staff reports related to the agency’s upcoming move to a refurbished building — should have been available at the counter.

Public records law requires that when a document is indisputably public, agencies “shall make the records promptly available to any person.”

Such records are supposed to be open to inspection during normal office hours.

If there’s a legitimate legal question of whether a record is public (and here there was not), agencies can take up to 10 working days to provide it or the legal grounds for withholding it.

“This 10-day period cannot be used merely to delay access,” the California Newspaper Publishers Association handbook on media law says.

Yet that’s exactly what the airport agency did.

In my Sept. 28 letter, I gave the agency until Friday to respond. On Friday, I got the predictable response: The agency now claims it can’t give me the documents because of the Sept. 21 FBI raid.

The truth is, the agency deliberately stalled and now it’s using the FBI raid (which came a week after I put in my request) as an excuse.

Cassie MacDuff can be reached at 951-368-9470 or