By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Newhall Land‘s long history in the region may be one reason the company is behind the curve on urban planning. According to Lauffer, its development approach is based on the post--World War II designs of architect Victor Gruen, whom Newhall hired to design its utopian suburban villages.
Gruen, who designed the country’s first enclosed mall, was more of an architect than ”one of the fathers of new urbanism,“ as the company likes to bill him. His ideas predate any notion of what is now called sustainable development. For instance, Gruen clustered houses and commercial development around the Santa Clara River, the way Indians and early settlers settled on rivers in the early days of the West. Today, New Urbanist model cities like Boise, Idaho, and Madison, Wisconsin, are designed to take into account the fragility and value of river corridors by protecting them as natural open space, usually with bike paths and meandering trails.
Of course, when it comes to the old-fashioned civic virtues, Lauffer points out that the company has donated land for the hospital, the city center and the local branch of the county library. Newhall also guarantees funds for school construction, Lauffer said. What she failed to mention was that the Sierra Club, the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment and a local homeowner‘s association sued the company in 1993 to force them to provide those guarantees. In any case, few would argue with the proposition that, one way or another, Newhall Land has created a place where a lot of people want to live. But the company’s sense of noblesse oblige doesn‘t appear to extend to the environment. Recently, the California Department of Fish and Game officials accused Newhall Land of deliberately breaking environmental laws in its efforts to ensure approval for its sprawling new development.
In May, state Fish and Game investigator Penelope Liotta filed a search-warrant request alleging that Newhall had deliberately destroyed habitat for a state-listed endangered species called the San Fernando Valley spineflower by grading vegetation and planting agaves on the site of a road planned for Newhall Ranch.
”It is my opinion that NLF [Newhall Land and Farming Company] is using the idea of an agave farm as a ruse to justify the systematic destruction of habitat that is consistent with SFVS [spineflower] habitat requirements,“ Liotta wrote. Liotta requested a search warrant because Newhall Land had consistently denied biologists access to search for endangered species on their land.a
Documents indicate that this isn’t the first time the company has covered up evidence of endangered species on its property. Biological consultant Louis Courtois reported in the 1994 edition of the California Natural Diversity Database that arroyo toads lived in sections of the Santa Clara River owned by Newhall Land. In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the toad on the endangered-species list, stating that 75 percent of its habitat had been lost, and of the 22 remaining populations, only six had more than a dozen toads.
This wasn‘t surprising, given the state of Southern California’s rivers. The arroyo toad, which exists only in Southern California and Baja, survives by burrowing into the loose sand of riverbanks. Arroyo toads cannot penetrate the soil-cement mix that is commonly used when developers want to build houses without leaving a buffer sufficient to protect them from natural flooding.
In 1999, after being hired by Newhall Land, Courtois reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that he had not found any arroyo toads in company-sponsored surveys in 1995 and 1999. This letter failed to mention the results he had reported in 1994.
Teresa Savaikie says the company‘s own environmental-impact report, required under California law, showed that the toad had been found under a major traffic artery, McBean Parkway, in 1996. Yet in 1998, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed off on a management plan for the river and its tributaries that did not mention the presence of the arroyo toad. Neither Courtois nor Newhall Land admitted that the toad had been found in the river until local environmentalists hired their own biologist, who confirmed that the toads lived in the Santa Clara.
Did the company break the law? Landowners have a legal obligation not to ”take“ or harm the habitat the species needs to survive, said Rick Farris, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Newhall’s activities in the Santa Clara River and its tributaries might fall within that definition. It would be difficult to prove in court, but it‘s hard to believe that Courtois, who failed to return a reporter’s phone calls for this article, didn‘t inform his client that an endangered species lived on their property. Lauffer, meanwhile, contends the river-management plan has already established what Newhall Land is allowed to do on the river. ”All of this is kind of moot, all this about frogs and toads,“ she said.
Federal wildlife officials don’t agree. Because the arroyo toad was not included in the river‘s management plan, agencies are now reviewing the plan to determine if it meets state and federal laws, said Farris. The river-management plan is one of the keys to building the Newhall Ranch development, as well as many smaller developments in the Santa Clara Valley. It basically sets the parameters for everything Newhall Land and other developers can do along the river.
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