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Giving Up the Ranch

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.”

This sordid history may put the county and Newhall back in court, where the project has been stymied by Kern County Superior Court Judge Roger D. Randall. Three years ago, Randall ordered Newhall to re-evaluate the project’s impacts on water use, animal life and sensitive wildlife ranges. The developer must now convince the judge that the project is environmentally sound.

 

Opponents will focus their courtroom efforts on the secrecy surrounding the environmental-impact reports filed by Newhall. Much of the detailed findings of their hired biologists had been kept from public scrutiny until 15 days before the board’s latest vote. Newhall had enforced confidentiality agreements, which are now under attack in the state Legislature, to keep its environmental consultants from revealing their raw data — 43 boxes full of field notes. How could there be full disclosure, Buse has asked, if no one has been able to review the science and query the scientists? “Rather than full and accurate disclosure,” Buse says, “the new information documents a failure of the [California Environmental Quality Act] process.”

In addition, there remain persistent questions not just about whether there will be sufficient water to supply 70,000 new residents and hundreds of new businesses — given the diminishing supplies and growing demand statewide — but whether the new development will dump toxins into the already tainted Santa Clara River. The Regional Water Quality Control Board, in February, issued a report accusing Newhall of failing to calculate how much “chloride, nitrogen and other pollutants . . . the project will add to the watershed.” These chemicals are harming the aquatic habitat “in the vicinity of the project area” and affecting the viability of agriculture downstream in Ventura County. It warns that the project could have significant detrimental effects on the Santa Clara River. The chief culprit, the board found, is imported water — exactly what Newhall relies upon to claim it has sufficient supplies — which is directly linked to rising levels of damaging salts. And recent residential construction contributes 500 percent more salts per home than older residences, the report states, “and will significantly exacerbate the chloride impairment.” What’s more, Newhall has no plan to comply with water-quality standards and no proposals to mitigate the additional pollutants.

These objections were either disregarded or dismissed by county officials. The suggestion made by several witnesses on May 27 that the vote be delayed to digest the previously undisclosed information, as well as new seismic-survey maps showing that most of the Newhall Ranch housing will be constructed in landslide and liquefaction zones, was ignored. Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who has received $70,000 from Newhall during his 23-year tenure on the board and was the project’s chief backer, called it “smart growth. These homes will be built in an area that will be creating [19,000] jobs in those communities for those residents.”

It was time to vote. The supervisors set aside any misgivings they might have had about promoting the disappearance of this plein air landscape, and set out to induce the birth of yet another folly in sprawl.

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