Cornerstone doesn’t measure up, judge says

Project halted pending further environmental review


STOP HERE—A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that Cornerstone, seen in this architectural rendering, needs a more in-depth study that gives a better accounting of its impact on the local environment. Courtesy of Cory Anttila

STOP HERE—A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that Cornerstone, seen in this architectural rendering, needs a more in-depth study that gives a better accounting of its impact on the local environment. Courtesy of Cory Anttila

Cornerstone, the first major development in the Agoura Village zone, was halted May 23 by a judge’s ruling that said the 8-acre mixed-use project has not been adequately vetted and needs further environmental review.

The 116,000-square-foot development at the southeast corner of Cornell and Agoura roads in Agoura Hills calls for the construction of seven buildings that include shops, restaurants, homes and offices.

Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll (STACK) and the California Native Plant Society have been fighting the project for more than 16 months and raising red flags about the potential harm the project could cause to the environment.

Siding with the plaintiffs, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mary Strobel said Cornerstone violated the Agoura Hills oak tree ordinance. The development also failed to undergo adequate environmental review as required by the California Environmental Quality Act and created the potential for permanent harm to a Native American archaeological site at the property.

The Agoura Hills City Council

STACK spokesperson Steve Hess said the developer, Santa Monica-based Cornerstone Real Estate Advisers, must now complete a “modern and detailed environmental impact report, which is all we were asking the city to do in the first place.”

“Only after the EIR has gone through a legal public review process where we will all comment, may the city then reconsider approval of the proposed development. Of course, we will be engaged through the entire process,” Hess said.

The city is required to set aside all land-use approvals for the project until the new report is completed.

To make room for the project, 29 oak trees were slated to be removed or relocated and replaced with new, smaller trees. Dan Gluesenkamp, executive director of the native plant society, said the existing oak trees in the area are “especially critical and are part of the ongoing CNPS efforts to protect and restore oak woodlands.”

In her ruling last month, Strobel stated that the project’s requirement for substantial grading could cause a “water deficit” that would affect the ability of the existing oak trees to survive.

For the development to proceed, the oak tree removal must be scaled back to legal compliance.

In addition, a trio of threatened or endangered plant species— Agoura Hills dudleya, Lyon’s pentachaeta and Ojai navarretia— were reviewed by the court. Experts said the plants cannot easily be moved to other locations and that their chance of survival could not be guaranteed.

In the ruling, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife wrote that the methods suggested for transplanting the plants were “experimental in nature” and should not be considered a proper mitigation measure.

Fish and Wildlife also said that the project could introduce exotic, invasive species, including

Argentine ants, which could be disruptive to plant pollination.

“Nature is being nibbled to death with small developments that flaunt local laws and ordinances,” said Steve Hartman, the native plant society president.

“It’s time for communities to step up and protect our California native plants because our local wildlife depends on them for survival,” Hartman said.

In addition, the north end of the project area includes a prehistoric archeological site where pieces of ancient stone tools have been found.

“The studies concluded that the site is a significant heritage resource center under CEQA and meets the significant requirements for inclusion in the California Register of Historical Resources,” and the ruling said the site could yield “important information” about the prehistory of the area.

Agoura Hills Mayor Bill Koehler said the City Council hasn’t yet discussed the possibility of an appeal.

“However, should the decision stand, I would think this decision would cause the developer to redesign his project,” Koehler said.

Hess said he hopes the developer will produce a new environmental report that takes to heart the concerns of STACK and the plant society.