"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The half-hour program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Bill Rattazzi, president of John Laing Homes' Los Angeles, Ventura, Kern and Santa Barbara county region. The following interview was conducted Jan. 29. Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: What do you think of the public reaction and all the press attention you got when John Quigley decided to sit in one of your oak trees for 71 days?
Rattazzi: In my business I try not to get press most of the time. I think the press has been an unwanted incursion, as far as I'm concerned. How the public has reacted has been a surprise to me, especially in the beginning a year ago.
Signal: How so?
Rattazzi: There was a permit to remove this tree as part of the development of that particular property. When the tree became a bigger issue than a tree at that point in time, my company stepped up, we thought, to the (plate), and said we'd move it, regardless of the cost.
We certainly had the permit to remove the tree and cut it down. But we thought, as we usually try to do at John Laing Homes, we would do the right thing and move it. What surprised me was (that) the reaction after we said we'd move it was almost worse than if we had cut it down.
Signal: Did your arborists tell you it would survive the move?
Rattazzi: The challenge of the tree is one of many that have been in my life, and I always want to win those challenges. I'm very competitive.
At John Laing Homes we try to do the right thing, so we hired good consultants arborists, landscape people, movers of the tree and we counseled with them very early on before we made a choice to do this.
There was, I think, a misconception put out at the time that oak trees have taproots. In fact they do not. We mentioned that; that was not, however, picked up, and when we finally did get the tree removed, it didn't have a taproot as we knew it wouldn't. Oak trees grow with the roots more in a horizontal direction.
We were pretty confident it would survive. It certainly is a big tree, but it was an issue of size rather than capacity to do it.
Signal: How much did this tree weigh?
Rattazzi: The tree finally weighed, the day it moved, about 916,000 pounds, or roughly 458 tons.
Signal: How was that determined?
Rattazzi: We determined it by a series of 28 hydraulic jacks that had meters on them, so you could put the total weight together. It was sort of an engineering wonder piece.
Signal: How much did it cost to move?
Rattazzi: To move the tree itself cost what we projected, pretty much, about a year ago, about $300,000 to $350,000. To orchestrate the entire operation over the last 14 months has cost well over $1 million.
Signal: What was the other money?
Rattazzi: The other money is involved with keeping the tree safe, keeping people out of the tree, keeping fences up around the tree, guards around the tree, around the clock, 24 hours a day. We've paid over $400,000 in guard fees in a year. Attorneys, and what have you.
Signal: How long have you been with John Laing Homes?
Rattazzi: A little over two years.
Signal: So you weren't there when the agreement between John Laing Homes and Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment (SCOPE) was negotiated in 1999.
Rattazzi: That's correct.
Signal: John Laing Homes agreed to use best efforts to protect this oak tree and others up the road. You ended up in court with SCOPE. Is that lawsuit still active?
Rattazzi: There is still an appeal by SCOPE that was filed. They were recently denied a temporary restraining order by the appellate court for lack of foundation, but there is an appeal pending.
Signal: What is John Laing Homes' position on this agreement? SCOPE apparently contended John Laing Homes didn't use best efforts to protect the tree.
Rattazzi: Right. As you suggested, I was not there when the agreement was done, but I have read the agreement probably more times than it was intended to be read, over the last 14 months. In that regard I think the agreement is pretty clear.
The agreement simply states that John Laing Homes, in concert with others, has agreed to forego building a certain portion of Pico Canyon Road the northerly lanes, as a matter of fact for a period of three years. John Laing will use its best interests to save certain trees, to create other things beside the trees. The agreement was not just for trees. The agreement was also for soft-sided stream bottoms, to recharge a mitigation area that we had done.
The agreement also says, among many other things, that SCOPE recognizes that the county has certain requirements for example, they have certain standards on roads, and they have certain criteria and we indicated, the signers of that agreement (four) years ago, that we would forego building that road for a period of three years to allow the county to determine whether that road needed to be in.
It was determined that the road needed to be in. And that's not a new determination, by the way. That road has been on the general plan of highways for about 20 years now. So this was not a determination made because of any new communities that may be coming down the road, quite frankly. This was made many years ago correctly, I might add.
So, the determination was made that the road needed to be put in place, and the tree, unfortunately, sat in the middle of it. Interestingly, as part of the agreement ... there is an exhibit to the agreement, Exhibit A. Exhibit A is a map. The map is very clear, showing where Pico Canyon Road is in relationship to the tree. And the map was part and parcel to the agreement, and SCOPE signed it. So I suppose I'm a little surprised that they took the action they did.
Signal: Why do you say the maps "correctly" show where the road should go, if the rationale for the alignment isn't related to future communities?
Rattazzi: There are two issues here. The first is Pico Canyon Road as an arterial highway in other words, a 100-foot right of way, two lanes in each direction, median which is currently what it's being built at. That determination, and the location within Pico Canyon, was determined 20 years ago.
Signal: Why is that correct for today?
Rattazzi: I don't know that it is correct for today, quite frankly. That's not in my purview, to make that judgment. The road was an extension of Lyons Avenue many, many years ago. It has been planned through the development of Stevenson Ranch as well as many other developments along Pico to follow that alignment.
The development that John Laing Homes took on, the Southern Oaks development, just piggybacked on the same alignment. The alignment was not really determined by the Southern Oaks development. We actually moved it, subsequent to buying this property in 1998.
Signal: Moved it into the tree?
Rattazzi: No, we moved it away from the tree a little bit, and moved it away from other areas so that other things could be saved and we could create a 20-acre oak tree park down the street and a large mitigation park which is now full of riparian type of vegetation.
Signal: How many homes are in your Southern Oaks development?
Rattazzi: There are 279 homes. The last home closed escrow there over a year ago.
Signal: Did Pico need to be four lanes for the Southern Oaks development?
Signal: What was the county instructing you to do?
Rattazzi: Let me rephrase that a little bit, if I might. I have lived in this valley for almost 21 years, and in that time, there have been pretty much three consistent things which have bothered everyone who lives here. One of them has been parks, the lack of, and the location of; one has been schools, the lack of, and-or the location of them; and (one) has been roads, the lack of them.
This is a valley constrained by topography; it's a valley constrained by rivers; it's a valley constrained by a number of things. The county does exactly the right thing, as does any other planning organization, to secure future rights-of-way for roads that will carry traffic. They may not know what traffic will be there in the future, but if you do not secure those rights-of-way well in advance, and plan for those, then you are going to be precluded from being able to accommodate. And for those of us who have lived here for a long time certainly you can look at that in Bouquet Canyon and the Seco Canyon area many years ago.
Signal: Were there studies to show whether the road could go around the tree?
Rattazzi: Yes. ... One of the interesting aspects of being in the job that I have, or positions like mine, is not only do I have to ask the questions; I have to find the solutions. I think it's sometimes easy to ask the questions without having the solutions.
In looking at the solutions, there were a couple of issues. First of all, the road would have been unsafe. The design speeds would have been cut down so substantially that the road would not have been able to accommodate what it should have, number one. No. 2, it would have been a broken-back curve, which essentially is a roadway in which the radiuses change so many times that an impaired driver or a young driver or a driver who is in inclement conditions may not pick up all those changes and may hurt themselves or have an accident. There are a number of roads in the past they were built that way, and they are uncomfortable to drive on, when you get on them.
So we did do many studies on that. We did many since I've been there. One of the foibles of being an engineer is that you always believe there is a solution. And we determined, with the county, who worked very strongly with us, that we just couldn't put that road in there. It wasn't enough room to do it.
Signal: What was John Laing Homes' position on the county's condition for the road? Did John Laing Homes want to build four lanes? Did John Laing Homes care whether it was four lanes?
Rattazzi: That's an interesting question. There are none of us who want to spend money we don't need to. Let me just say that.
Conditions are placed on maps all the time. And the condition for us to build that road is an appropriate one. It's a condition that, if it hadn't been placed on it, like it was 20 or 30 years ago, would have perhaps precluded a good flow of traffic in the future. So the county in this particular case cities do the same thing they're doing exactly what they should do, planning for the future, safety and security and movement of traffic in their area, in their jurisdiction. So it is very appropriate to put that condition on us. I would always rather not build something I don't need to, but it's appropriate for them to do that. That's a condition we would normally accept. It was not unusual.
Signal: Where you ever in a position where you were on a different page or arguing with the county?
Rattazzi: No. I think the county worked with us very well, and I appreciate the Public Works office I work with them quite a lot; Supervisor (Michael D.) Antonovich's office as well. We were never on a different page, and we were always trying to find solutions.
Signal: Who owns the tree before and after its move to the park?
Rattazzi: John Laing owned it, and we still do at this point. In its new location it's in a county park. The park is being dedicated to the county when it's completed. It's a 20-acre oak tree preserve, (and) was even before this tree entered it. We had saved 170 trees and we're planting another 120. They're smaller. And we had actually transplanted eight additional trees besides this oak tree on that development. So this tree will be part of the dedicated park to L.A. County.
John Laing has agreed with the county to retain what's called a maintenance license over this tree for a period of five years at a minimum, because we want to ensure that it's going to be safe and it's going to grow.
Signal: Is it going to live?
Rattazzi: My arborists tell me yes. ... I'm an engineer, so I'm the wrong person to ask this, but I will say this: We boxed the tree starting in March of last year, of 2003. We side-boxed the tree very slowly. We did two sides at a time. As we did that, we certainly had to cut some roots. We also found roots we were able to take and fold within the box and save them. And the tree did very well last year. I think by all accounts, including SCOPE's, the tree did remarkably well. It was green. It was being nourished. We cared for it very well. It is in good health.
When we started to dig under the tree, we weren't concerned we would find big roots, but you never know the kind of roots you'll find. We didn't find hardly any roots under the tree. The biggest root we found was about an inch, inch and a half. And there were very few of those.
My arborists believe that as a function of the tree surviving and actually flourishing (while) being side-boxed, and not finding any roots underneath of appreciable size, it will continue to do well.
Signal: When Quigley first climbed the tree in November 2002, it looked like you were going to have him removed. How would you have done that, and why didn't you?
Rattazzi: We tried to enforce the permit we had, a couple of times. That was in the first two weeks of November. Working with the Sheriff's Department, we tried to devise a plan that would be safe for both Mr. Quigley as well as the tree, as well as the people around it.
That really became the more compelling issue than Mr. Quigley the mothers and the children who were not in school, and other community members and others from outside this community have visited the tree. It became a major safety issue and security problem, and we elected to just not do that at that point.
Signal: Would you have had to make a citizen's arrest for the sheriffs to remove him?
Rattazzi: Any private citizen, to do that, would have to do the same thing. We would have done that, and I had agreed to do that at the time, but we're not going to take the chance of risking injury to bystanders and people on the ground. That's really the reason the Sheriff's Department, in concert with us, stepped back and said this isn't going to work.
Signal: Instead you went to court.
Rattazzi: We went to court ultimately because Mr. Quigley clearly was going to stay there for some period of time beyond 71 days, and in fact was discussing doing some sort of rotation with people in the tree, as I recall.
We felt that this was becoming a bigger and bigger circus, to use a word. One day I recall a taco stand came out and gave tacos away. There was another day where a Hispanic radio station came out and tried to entice the workers away from the tree. It became not unusual to see 200 or 300 people around the tree.
Signal: Including Renee Russo, Tony Danza, Ed Begley Jr. -
Rattazzi: I think the thing that finally hit me is, we were having people climbing the tree, and while Mr. Quigley has indicated to me that he is an accomplished tree climber, certainly Renee Russo and Mr. Begley and others are not, by their own admission. So we began to fear very much for their safety and for the surrounding safety, and we said it is time to end this. If Mr. Quigley is not going to come out, and we've offered to move this tree, it's time to move him out, and the only way we could do that safely was by use of the courts.
Signal: After he was removed, you still had a lawsuit against him for trespass. Wasn't that lawsuit also to recover some of the $1 million in damages?
Rattazzi: The lawsuit was predominately for trespass.
Signal: And you dropped it.
Rattazzi: We did. We dropped the lawsuit on Mr. Quigley.
Signal: Why didn't you seek to recover damages?
Rattazzi: First of all, I don't know that there would have been anything to recover, on John's own mind. And I think it became a counterproductive issue. John Laing Homes we build homes. It's really what we do. We don't move oak trees. This is sort of a secondary job we picked up here. We like to do the right thing, and it struck us that in order to focus on doing the right thing and moving this tree correctly, we needed to move out of these ancillary issues. A judge had struck down the SCOPE case against us, and we just thought it was time to clean the slate, and it made appropriate sense to do that.
Signal: Let's switch gears. Who is Bill Rattazzi? How long have you lived here, and who else have you worked for?
Rattazzi: I've been in Sand Canyon and this valley for over 21 years. My children were raised here, They're both (grown) now. I worked for Newhall Land and Farming for many years, about 20 years ago. I was the CEO of Dale Poe Development for a number of years, until it was sold to Lennar -
Signal: What did you do at Newhall Land?
Rattazzi: I was the senior vice president of residential development. In that capacity, while I was there, we developed and sold the balance of Central Valley and North Valley by the Henry Mayo (Newhall Memorial) Hospital; developed the Summit in 1984-85; and then developed the Northbridge area, the first actual movement of Valencia up north of Newhall Ranch Road.
Signal: You left Newhall Land when?
Rattazzi: Late 1987.
Signal: And then you went to Dale Poe, the original developer of Stevenson Ranch?
Rattazzi: No, I became president of CalProp Corp. for about five or six years, and then in early 1992 I left them and in 1993 I was given the opportunity to be the CEO of Dale Poe Development.
Signal: So you ran Dale Poe.
Signal: And sold it to Lennar when?
Signal: Since 1996, you've been involved with a company called SunCal?
Rattazzi: I was a partner in an organization called SunCal. I was the managing partner in anything we were doing in the Los Angeles-Ventura area. In that capacity we developed Tesoro del Valle; we developed the Hillcrest development, or a portion of it, in Castaic; and a number of other projects in Ventura county and other portions of L.A.
Signal: Do you still have an interest in SunCal?
Rattazzi: I still am a partner in SunCal, yes.
Signal: OK, SunCal is involved in communities within the Newhall County Water District, where the new board is changing the agency's water management policies. What's your opinion of that, and do you think there is enough water for continued growth in the Santa Clarita Valley? How much growth can our valley sustain?
Rattazzi: I don't know that. But I've heard the same answers that we hear today, 21 years ago when I moved into this valley. So one suspects that over 21 years, we've managed to accommodate some growth. How much more, I don't have the capacity to know that.
Do I think there is enough water? I don't know. I attended all of the hearings, or most of the hearings, on the water management plan for Castaic Lake Water Agency. Again, they don't have the luxury of just asking questions; they have to find solutions. The people that they employed on that water management survey were competent, well skilled, many years of experience. I've read through everything they've come up with, and I believe it.
So I guess in that regard, I do not believe that the Newhall County Water District, their (water management resolution), is appropriate at this point in time.
Signal: What are the plans for Tesoro? There are to be 1,900-plus homes there?
Rattazzi: There are. But I'm no longer involved in the managing-partner aspect of it, so I really can't speak on what's the future plans of Tesoro or, for that matter, the NorthLake development that SunCal has as well.
Signal: What region do you oversee for John Laing Homes?
Rattazzi: I run the Los Angeles and Ventura region, which also will include Kern County and Santa Barbara County. It's a rather large area.
Signal: What are John Laing's plans in our valley?
Rattazzi: We've been building out here for quite some time. Let me segue and say we were named national builder of the year for 2004, which we're very proud of. We've been building in the Plum Canyon area for a number of years and will be continuing there for a number of years to come. We're just completing a project in the Westridge Golf Course Community. Our Bella Ventana project did very well there on the first hole. We have developments in the Palmdale area ... and throughout the entire region.
One of the things we're gearing to do is move more into infill and redevelopment, so we'll be consistently doing this kind of work. We're in the process of working in Inglewood; we're going to be looking at Carson, Sylmar, Port Hueneme, those opportunities. And I find those to be even more of an interesting approach to where I want to spend the rest of my career.
Signal: Have you been involved in civic activities as a resident here?
Rattazzi: Yes. Many. Throughout the years both my wife and I were involved in a number of them. I helped build part of Henry Mayo Newhall (Memorial) Hospital, and then I served on the board for three consecutive terms, which was the limit on the board of directors. I chaired the golf tournament for the hospital for a number of years back in the å80s.
I served on the board of directors for the Special Children's Center, at that time, it was called. I was the North Los Angeles Region chair for United Way for a number of years. (I) got involved a little bit with the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA. I've coached track and field up until the last few years in the Warrior program, which takes children from 5 years on. And then I assisted at Canyon High school when one of my kids was there a number of years ago.
Signal: What do you do in your free time, if you have any?
Rattazzi: I really don't have much, number one, but I jump out of planes and I ride motorcycles and I have fun.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.