By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
On May 27, about an hour before the county gave final approval for Newhall Ranch, the largest housing subdivision in Los Angeles history, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the lone dissenter, had one of those rare, revelatory exchanges with a public servant. Pity Barry Witler, the county’s in-house traffic expert. Yaroslavsky was trying to figure out how the region’s overtaxed highways could accommodate a subdivision with 20,885 new homes, 5.5 million square feet of commercial, industrial and office space, and roughly 70,000 new residents, all the way out by Magic Mountain. Witler cautiously ran down the numbers, increasingly aware that his answers to the supervisor’s questions were stretching credulity. The project will generate 334,000 daily auto trips, Witler calculated, with roughly 35,000 to 40,000 of those on the road at rush hour. But, he insisted, just 10 percent of those peak-hour drivers — 3,500 to 4,000 — “are expected to travel outside of the Santa Clarita Valley,” covering the 70-mile roundtrip commute to and from Los Angeles.
“Do you believe, in your professional judgment, that it is credible that between 6:30 a.m. and 9 a.m., that almost 90 percent of the vehicular trips generated [by Newhall] is never going to leave the Santa Clarita Valley during that two-and-a-half-hour period?” Yaroslavsky wondered.
Witler stuck to his numbers, saying that “Based on how the Santa Clarita Valley is expected to build out,” jobs and motorists would stay put.
Yaroslavsky had heard all this before. “The trouble is — it’s been my experience over nearly three decades of doing this stuff — there’s one thing for which you can’t plan, no matter how smart you are, and that’s how people will behave, where people are going to get jobs. You can’t plan. You can’t predict. And I will bet you one thing: If I had a ranch . . . I’d bet you the ranch . . . there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that 90 percent of the a.m. peak traffic generated in this area is going to stay in this area. Not a chance in hell. Just not possible.”
The acerbic remarks were received with bittersweet approval by many who’d attended the Tuesday session. The Friends of the Santa Clara River, the Sierra Club and thousands of area residents had been battling the mega-development for nearly a decade, and neither their applause nor Yaroslavsky’s common sense prevented the board’s 4-1 “aye” vote. With that, one of the county’s wealthiest and most powerful landholders was awarded a‰ multibillion-dollar gift, allowing a tenfold increase in density on a property that had originally been zoned for 2,070 houses.
Newhall Ranch will be built on the hillsides above Magic Mountain, sandwiched between I-5 and the Ventura County line — surrounding and impinging on the Santa Clara River, one of two remaining free-running, undammed rivers between Santa Barbara and Mexico. The open landscape of barrancas and mesas, of live oaks and native grasslands, has been used to run cattle for 120 years. The 12,000 acres — owned by Newhall Land & Farming, and a remainder of the 223 square miles of California that Henry Mayo Newhall amassed in the mid-1800s — is a rare habitat containing some of the state’s most endangered species. Last September, the Los Angeles sunflower, a 10- to 12-foot-high large yellow bloomer, last seen in 1937 and long considered extinct, was discovered on the developer’s site, along a soggy bank of the Santa Clara. The San Fernando spineflower, which produces dime-size blossoms and, until very recently, was also believed extinct, grows smack in the middle of the slated tract housing. The federally listed threatened red-legged frog, the largest frog native to the western U.S., whose population is rapidly declining, is on Newhall land — though industry pressure has kept the site from being designated critical habitat, which might stump the developer. And the Southwestern arroyo toad, another endangered species, lives both upstream and downstream from the subdivision — but, according to the Newhall’s paid consultants, can’t be found where houses will go up. (Yaroslavsky declared that the toad must be “one of the smartest species to ever walk to Santa Clarita Foothills . . . ’cause this is one helluva global-positioning system that toad has got.”)
Back in March, it did seem as if the spineflower, among other environmental issues, might alter, if not halt, the project. In 2000, Newhall acknowledged that a single stand of the tiny plants was growing along a dusky road on its property. Tantalized, and hoping to find more of the endangered plant elsewhere on the site, California Fish and Game authorities — denied access by Newhall — used aerial surveillance to obtain a search warrant that led to the discovery of tens of thousands of the plants spread across the project land. They also discovered that Newhall had plowed and terraced some of the area and spread alfalfa (which cows like to munch) where the flowers were growing — a seeming violation of endangered-species protection laws. Newhall claimed the destruction was an unintentional but usual farm practice. Eventually, L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley (whose political mentor, former D.A. Robert Philibosian, represents Newhall) hijacked the case from his own environmental lawyers, who’d planned criminal prosecution. The D.A. dropped the charges, and Newhall agreed to a 64-acre preserve — roughly a quarter of the acreage Washington Mutual has dedicated at its Ahmanson Ranch development in Ventura County, where the flower was first rediscovered. Cooley swapped felony perjury and conspiracy for a pintsize plot — in a move that, as John Buse, the attorney for the Friends of the Santa Clara River, told the supervisors on May 27, was “a product of a political compromise and a criminal investigation. Biologically,” he said, it is “indefensible.”