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Cam Noltemeyer: What is the county thinking?

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: March 17, 2010 9:18 p.m.
Updated: March 18, 2010 4:55 a.m.
While previously approved and graded projects stand with vacant lots, two huge projects are now moving through the county process.

The first, the 1,260-unit Skyline Ranch, may be approved by the County Regional Planning Department next week. The first phase of the Newhall Ranch, another 1444 units is moving through the EIR review process.

One can only ask, “What is the county thinking?”  With the foreclosure rate still at an all-time high and the unemployment rate in California hovering around 12%, who will buy these houses? Why are more being approved when we are suffering the scourge of vacant graded land and existing housing left abandoned by previous owners that are now “upside down” in their mortgage?

The answer is pretty simple for the developer. Receiving entitlement increases the appraisal and thus the value of the property for borrowing purposes. For instance, it is our understanding that the Newhall Ranch land under agricultural zoning was valued at some $12 million.

After approval by the Regional Planning Commission several years ago, that same property increased in value by about 12 times.

Final approval brought the value to around $2.1 billion — the amount of the loans carried by Barclay’s Bank and California Public Employees Pension Fund (CalPers). But this was really all just paper. Nothing “on the ground” had changed, no infrastructure added, no streets or streetlights, no sewage facility.

So when the housing bubble burst, CalPers had to walk away with a $1 billion loss, and many small local contractors also lost money.  

The California economy has still not recovered from the bust. But here we go again with more housing approvals.

So it seems probable that the developers merely want to be able to borrow more money against entitled land. They certainly can’t want to build additional units when much of Newhall’s Riverpark stands empty and the much touted Soledad Canyon Townhomes is a huge vacant lot.  

But isn’t this part of what created the housing bubble in the first place? Loans against overvalued or even worthless land, hedge funds, short sales on stock and derivatives were all part of the problem.

So it seems to us that it is really time for the county to start taking a closer look at these approvals. When water supply, air pollution and major traffic problems will result from additional housing units, it is time to demand that such problems be addressed before approvals are granted. The county cannot continue approving housing units with “overriding considerations” by saying we need more housing. There are thousands of units already approved in the city of Santa Clarita and the county that have not been built.

One of the biggest issues in our valley is water supply. Our Saugus aquifer is still polluted by chemicals from the Whittaker Bermite property. This aquifer is supposed to be our local water source in the case of drought or the interruption of state water from Northern California. All the water reports include it as available, but the cleanup facilities are still not operating. This is a huge issue for our valley.

SCOPE has long demanded that this cleanup facility should be operating before more new development is approved. With the state of the economy and California’s water supply problems, it is time for the county to heed that message.

Just an additional note — the Community Advisory Group will be meeting at Santa Clarita City Hall, Century Room, 239020 Valencia Blvd., 7 p.m. March 24 to discuss the Whittaker Bermite Site contamination cleanup.

Representatives from the Department of Toxic Substances Control will be present to answer your questions regarding soil and water contamination on the site.

This meeting is being held in the evening to make it convenient for the public. Everyone is invited to attend.

Cam Noltemeyer is a Santa Clarita resident and a board member of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Environmentally Speaking” appears Thursdays and rotates among local environmentalists.


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