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Suit raises ‘Ranch’ hurdle

Coalition sues state agency over approval of permits for 21,000-home westside

Posted: January 4, 2011 7:58 p.m.
Updated: January 5, 2011 4:30 a.m.
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The coalition suing the California Department of Fish and Game for signing off on Newhall Ranch claims the regulatory agency used bad science in its environmental reviews before building permits for the massive development were approved, officials said Tuesday.

A coalition of five environmental and Native American groups filed a lawsuit in San Francisco County Superior Court Monday that claims the department violated state environmental codes when it approved plans on Dec. 3 to build the 21,000-home development west of Interstate 5.

Fish and Game officials said Tuesday that they would not comment on the lawsuit because they had not reviewed it yet.

The lawsuit, which intends to derail the development as it is currently planned, states that once built, Newhall Ranch will cause significant harm to the Santa Clara River and surrounding environment.

The department’s decision allows Newhall Land Development LLC to fill about 20 miles of tributary streams that flow into the Santa Clara River with concrete, said John Buse, senior attorney for Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs.

The department chose not to move development farther from the river and surrounding streams, which was an option in the environmental report, that could protect more of the river from being developed, he said.

“I don’t think they considered (the alternatives) seriously or rejected (the alternatives) for sound scientific reasons,” Buse said.

Meanwhile, Newhall Land officials said the company has worked for 10 years figuring out ways to protect the Santa Clara River and surrounding environment.

About 70 percent of Newhall Ranch will be protected open space and will preserve 93 percent of the Santa Clara River corridor, said Marlee Lauffer, Newhall Land’s spokeswoman.

“We’re confident that with the years of analysis, mitigation measures and scientific research that went into the approval of these permits that Newhall Ranch will prevail in court,” Lauffer said.

Newhall Ranch will also include five preserves to protect the spineflower — an endangered plant with small white flowers — on approximately 167 acres, according to company documents.

But according to the lawsuit, preserves designed to protect the spineflower were designed using bad science and don’t provide enough open space to protect the flower from the proposed development.

“The department’s proposed spineflower preserve is based on junk science that is as likely to lead the Newhall Ranch spineflower population to extinction as it is to save it,” David Magney, president of the Channel Islands Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, said in a statement. “We need a preserve that actually preserves the species.” 

Newhall Ranch has faced several lawsuits in the past and defeated each in court, Lauffer said. Newhall Ranch will win this lawsuit as well, she said.

“(The lawsuit) is disappointing but not surprising,” Lauffer said. “This seems to be the standard operating procedure for many of these groups.”

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