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Lynne Plambeck: Lyons Ranch puts seniors, taxpayers at peril

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: March 25, 2009 11:17 p.m.
Updated: March 26, 2009 4:55 a.m.
A trip to a Board of Supervisors meeting in downtown Los Angeles is never a pleasant experience for the public. It means a day off work, a long drive in traffic, usually about an hour and a half from Santa Clarita and a hefty parking fee. A long wait faces the intrepid traveler before the agenda item is heard. Then finally, the resident is granted the opportunity to speak to a supervisor who is not listening because he is having a conversation at the dais with someone else.

Oh, well. Thank heaven community members and others are still willing to make the journey, in spite of the frustration. It is important to speak truth to power, especially this week when the safety of future senior citizens may be at stake.

These problems were supposed to be cured when we formed the city of Santa Clarita back in 1987. We had hoped the city would put the brakes on the grading away of hillsides and rampant destruction of our native oaks, that residents would have an easier time attending meetings and the City Council would actually listen to the public.

At first, all of that did happen. The council passed an oak tree ordinance and a hillside ordinance in the early '90s to protect our local environment. Meetings are still easier to get to than attending a supervisor's hearing, and our council does listen, although in the past several years they have listened far more to developers than to local residents. But as for protection of oaks and hillsides, their recent record is not any better than that of the county.

That is why it is appalling to hear Tuesday during the approval of the Lyons Ranch project that will put seniors in a severe fire-hazard zone and remove 162 oaks, including 13 heritage oaks, that our city would have approved a project there for some 850 units.

What were they thinking? The city that we worked so hard to form should have been there standing beside us on this one.

This project was approved next to Towsley Park in a severe fire hazard zone. In 2003, this Lyons Canyon area burned in a horrible wildfire that came right to the edge of homes in Stevenson Ranch.

An army of fire trucks was not able to stop its wind-driven spread through the canyon. While we appreciate Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich's requirement to ensure that a fire station will be built, and not merely a pad for one as offered by the developer, a fire station will not stop the type of wind-whipped holocaust that so recently occurred in Sylmar.

The Sayre fire rapidly burned 500 mobile homes to the ground more than before it was contained.

Many of those who lost their homes were seniors. How difficult it must be to start life over after losing everything at the age of 70 or 80. But we have additional safety questions about how quickly seniors could even be evacuated from a multi-story building like the one approved Tuesday. What if a fire causes electrical outages as happened in the Sayre fire in Sylmar? How will the seniors get out safely from the top floors with no operating elevator?

The Lyons Canyon Ranch project does not fit the bill for senior housing, since it is not near services that seniors need and is surrounded on three sides by open space or the freeway. Affordable housing was envisioned by the state legislature to be infill where services are readily available by using public transportation. To encourage this housing category, the state streamlined and sweetened the approval process with density bonuses.

But they didn't envision the creativity of the developer community that would seek density bonuses for senior housing by placing that housing in a severe fire-hazard zone. It also probably never occurred to them that local county supervisors would support such a project proposal.

Last year, the state legislature passed AB-2447, a bill that sought to limit housing approvals in severe fire-hazard zones on the urban interface. But it was unfortunately opposed by the building industry and vetoed by the governor.

The cost to the state and the counties of fighting such fires as the Sayre Fire runs into the tens of millions dollars each year. How can our county supervisor continue to ask taxpayers to subsidize developers' desire to build in such dangerous areas in light of all our present budget woes?

After weighing the safety of our seniors, the cost to taxpayers and the significant loss of our local natural resources, how could the county have approved such a project, and how could our city have gone along with it?

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) and a Santa Clarita resident. "Environmentally Speaking" appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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