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Cam Noltemeyer: New housing development is unnecessary

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: June 2, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: June 2, 2011 1:55 a.m.

The Regional Planning Commission approved another 4,200 housing units in the Santa Clarita Valley.

With tens of thousands of units already approved in the Santa Clarita Valley, and many homeowners still “underwater,” one has to ask why this huge project was approved now with so many unanswered questions.

The project has yet to receive a permit to alter and bank the Santa Clara River in this sensitive area west of Interstate 5. Although the Department of Fish and Game issued its “take” permit to kill endangered species, several environmental groups (including the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment) are challenging that permit.

But perhaps what is most disturbing to Santa Clarita residents and taxpayers is the commission’s approval to use the Valencia Treatment Plant for all the sewage generated by this huge project. While the Newhall Ranch specific plan called for a new sanitation plant that would meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act for chloride, a naturally occurring salt, and other constituents, the Valencia Treatment Plant does not meet these requirements.

In fact, as most everyone knows, the Valencia plant will require expensive upgrades to make sure that we don’t pollute the Santa Clara River with salt. It will take an estimated $250 million to $500 million to upgrade this plant. How this money will be raised is still a huge question.

Last year, ratepayers turned out in the thousands to several public hearings, objecting to the hike in sewer rates proposed to build the needed treatment. While SCOPE strongly believes we need to fix this problem, we don’t think the cost should be placed on the taxpayers. 

The Sanitation District has known about this problem for decades, but did nothing about it. As the water agencies imported more Northern California water, which is higher in salts, to support new development, it kept sewer-connection fees low for this new development to aid our local developers.

Instead of addressing the chloride problem over a number of decades that would have considerably lessened the financial pain, it sought to ignore the problem and then fight the regulator’s attempt to enforce the Clean Water Act. It is still doing this, as witnessed by both the county and city’s efforts to lower developer fees. 

But if the developers don’t pay the cost of doing business, who does? You and me, of course.

So while the sanitation districts use our money to try to avoid complying with the Clean Water Act, they keep connection fees low for the development community, and you and I will pick up the tab.

This is not consistent with the specific plan for Newhall Ranch. The supervisors approved the specific plan for Newhall Ranch only with the caveat that any needed infrastructure would have to be paid by the developer.

That is only fair. Small-business owners aren’t able to get taxpayers to subsidize their businesses; why should big business be allowed to use the taxpayers in this way?

The specific plan also required that a sanitation plant meeting current standards be built to serve the project. The regional water-quality board approved this plant, limiting effluent limits to meet the Clean Water Act. This would have helped address the chloride problem downstream. 

Now contrary to the specific plan, the county will allow Lennar Corp to use the Valencia Plant without any improvements in treatment. You and I will pick up the cost of needed improvements for chlorides for up to an additional 6,000 units, improving the bottom line for this national developer.

It will also use the recycled water that is higher in salts from this plant to serve Newhall Ranch, thus increasing the salt load in the watershed. This is water that was previously proposed to be supplied to other areas in the Santa Clarita Valley.

All of this was approved at a time when we had a huge surplus of housing, both built and unbuilt approvals. Why did our regional planning commission make such a decision?

SCOPE believes it may not have been fully informed of all the surrounding issues. That’s why SCOPE and Friends of the Santa Clara River have appealed this approval to the Board of Supervisors.

At the April 14 special meeting of the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District, the board raised your sewer rates from the current $199 per year to $247 per year by the third year. It reduced the connection fees from the increase requested. Santa Clarita Mayor Marsha McLean, Councilwoman Laurene Weste and County Mayor Michael Antonovich were the voting board members. 

If rising sewer fees concern you, we hope you will let the supervisors know your thoughts when this project comes before them.

Cam Noltemeyer is a board member of SCOPE.


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