A coalition of five public-interest groups, the Sierra Club, the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment (SCOPE), the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Santa Clara River, and the Wishtoyo Foundation’s Ventura Coastkeeper Program have filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County in Superior Court over its approval of permits for the first phase of the Newhall Ranch development.
(Photo: Courtesy of SCOPE.org)
At the conclusion of its final phase the development will have built an estimated 20,885 homes on a six mile stretch of land along Highway 126 and the Santa Clara River, just west of Interstate 5.
Los Angeles County approved an overall plan for the Newhall Ranch development in 2003. However, progress was slowed by the bankruptcy of LandSource Communities Development, the predecessor of Newhall Ranch’s current developer.
The moribund project has been revived a decade later by what the coalition calls an “infusion of cash and majority ownership by several out-of-state hedge funds.” For Lynne Plambeck, President of SCOPE, the long delay requires a second look at the impact the development will have on the community.
“Things have changed in this valley in 10 years, so this idea that they have been producing information on this project and it’s thoroughly reviewed, well, it’s gone on so long things have changed,” said Plambeck.
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The makeup of the new developers should also be a concern to residents of Santa Clarita, according to Plambeck.
“This is out-of-state hedge funds driving this and I think the community should know that because is that who we really want controlling our community?” said Plambeck.
The coalition’s objection to the development has a quality of life, financial and environmental component.
Those nearly 21,000 homes are expected to create a “mini-city” of 60,000 residents. Many of those will be car owners whose commutes are expected to jam local freeways. There have been promises of bus service since there’s not already comprehensive public transportation in the area.
“I’m not sure who they will sell houses to that will take buses anywhere,” said Plambeck.
There is also the argument that homeowners in the area will be working at the Commerce Center instead of having a long commute. Plambeck disputes that.
“With middle income households, generally both partners work and they go and buy a house in the middle. One goes one way, one goes the other,” Plambeck said.
There is also a cost component, due to the need for a $50 million dollar bridge at the intersection of Highway 126 and Franklin Parkway to accommodate the 4,000 home Mission Village community.
According to Plambeck, Newhall Ranch is only going to pay $3 million towards the project and the balance will come from transfers from existing bridge and thoroughfare districts. Those funds were meant for infrastructure projects in the center of Santa Clarita to support development projects that were already approved.
“I’m a small business owner and I don’t get these kinds of subsidies to make my business run. With a project that has these incredible impacts on the community they could darn well pay for the infrastructure and not try to put one over on the taxpayers,” said Plambeck.
On the environmental front, the coalition says the development would create a series of strip malls along Highway 126 and interfere with the declining habitat.
“It’s appalling that L.A. County would be so reckless with the last free-flowing river in the region,” said Ron Bottorff with the Friends of the Santa Clara River. “This area has lost all but 3 percent of its historic river woodlands; the county’s approval would replace some of the finest riparian areas remaining anywhere in Southern California with ugly strip malls and housing we don’t need.”
(Note: A riparian zone or riparian area is the interface between land and a river or stream. They are significant in ecology, environmental management, and civil engineering because of their role in soil conservation, their habitat biodiversity, and the influence they have on fauna and aquatic ecosystems.)
According to the coalition, the development would require the filling of the Santa Clara River’s floodplain on a large scale; channelizing over three miles of river and converting many tributary streams to concrete-lined channels.
“Developing in a river floodplain is never a good idea,” said Ileene Anderson, biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We should protect our precious water resources, not destroy them.”
Additionally the project would reportedly unearth and desecrate American Indian burial sites, sacred places and cultural natural resources.
“The impacts to hundreds upon hundreds of our burial sites, and natural cultural resources such as the California condor that are such a vital component of our culture and religious practices, will be devastating and irreversible,” said Mati Waiya, a Chumash ceremonial elder and executive director of the Wishtoyo Foundation.
The coalition’s lawsuit was in response to a February 23 approval for construction by Los Angeles County. The suit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court under the California Environmental Quality Act, and will include additional “Map Act” and “Plan Consistency” issues.
The suit will ask the court to review the legality of the county’s approval process. Attorney Dean Wallraff of Advocates for the Environment will represent the coalition.
“The project information was substantially changed at the last minute just prior to the final hearing before the county supervisors,” said Wallraff. “The public and the decision-makers should have a document they can read through in a straightforward way to understand the environmental impacts of the project, and this isn’t it.”
Plambeck knows that court cases are unpredictable, but remains hopeful.
“I think the best possible result would be to have the project set aside. You know we already have some 30,000 units approved, but unbuilt in Santa Clarita Valley. So it’s not like we need this project for new housing,” said Plambeck.
For more information on SCOPE click here.