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Lynne Plambeck: One Valley, One Vision deserves unbiased review

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: October 28, 2009 5:30 p.m.
Updated: October 29, 2009 4:55 a.m.
A few years ago, the legislature tried to pass a law that would make environmental review for projects less biased. It seems developer-funded environmental impact reports (EIRs) often left something to be desired in the areas of accuracy and full disclosure.

Information that decision-makers needed to ensure protection for natural areas and wildlife was either not there or so obscured that problems were hidden from view. Issues such as water supply and traffic were understated so needed mitigation to ensure the community's quality of life was not forthcoming.

It was hoped this legislation would reduce lawsuits brought in frustration over failure to disclose such matters. But the governor refused to sign it.

Some cities address this problem by providing developers with a list of approved consultants they can use. Others, after finding particularly egregious errors, forbid the use of certain consultants. But the developer can still choose his own consultant, partly based on the premise that without the competition the cost of an EIR would go sky high.

One has to wonder why the city and Los Angeles County chose to use Impact Sciences to produce the EIRs for their One Valley One Vision General Plan update.

This consultant has charged some of the highest rates for EIRS - well over $500,000 for some projects in the Santa Clarita Valley.

In addition, they have produced the EIRs for every Newhall Land and Farming Co. project in the Santa Clarita Valley, from North Valencia I to Newhall Ranch.

While such experience might seem a benefit, one has to wonder what might be built into these reports for the benefit of this very large developer, now owned by the Lennar Corp. and headquartered in Florida, whose financial well-being is intimately linked to Newhall Land.

The use of only one EIR consultant for most projects in the Santa Clarita Valley also ensures that another consulting firm will find no conflicting information.

How embarrassing and difficult to explain it might be if Rincon, for instance, found animals in its biological surveys not found by Impact Sciences. Or what if the Chambers Group analyzed the water supply and found there really were issues that needed to be addressed?

You can bet such a situation will never occur when only one consulting firm is hired for every development in the valley, including the General Plan update.

Newhall Land has been a major customer of Impact Sciences for the last 10 years. They were the consultants that did not find the spineflower on Newhall Ranch or the spadefoot toad in River Park until state Department of Fish and Game brought charges against Newhall Land for the flower's destruction and a member of the public complained. They were the company that wrote the first EIR on Newhall Ranch, later set aside by the court for failure to adequately address water supply.

The court also ordered Newhall Ranch must comply with the county Development Monitoring System (DMS) for each tract map of the Newhall Ranch project.

Interestingly, the new EIR, produced by this same Newhall Land consultant, conveniently eliminates the Development Monitoring System. No DMS, and no need to comply with the court decision. Why would the county allow this?

With the expense of this review in mind and our current economic condition, one must also ask why the city and county are preparing separate EIRs, both through Impact Sciences. It's great for the company's bottom line, but not good for the taxpayer's pocket book.

Neither is it good for the civic-minded public which might wish to participate in the process. Now they must attend twice the amount of public hearings and read thousands of duplicative pages of information to look for differences or errors in two documents, instead of one combined document. How many people will have the fortitude to read both EIRs? Which one will they ignore?

If One Valley, One Vision is really the coordinated effort it is made out to be, why are two separate documents necessary?

With cost and fairness in mind, why would the city and the county choose to use this consultant once again and to prepare two EIRs instead of one combined document that includes a chapter addressing the differences? One can only wonder.

It certainly warrants a close look.

We urge everyone to get involved in this important plan for our community. The county's EIR for the General Plan update can be found online at the county Department of Regional Planning's Web site. The city's EIR has not yet been released.

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


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