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Lynne Plambeck: Newhall Ranch vote misguided

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: February 23, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: February 23, 2012 2:00 a.m.
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On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the long-contested first phase of the Newhall Ranch development project on a three-supporting, two-abstaining vote.

The Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment believes approval of this project was a mistake and said so at the board meeting, bringing up many facts to support our argument.

One of the particularly discouraging parts of testifying before members of the board of supervisors is the aura of unreality that seems to surround their decision-making.

For example, as part of the approval process, they must make certain findings, including the need for additional housing.

Many homeowners in the SCV face foreclosure, and several housing projects — including at least two projects owned by Newhall Land Development Inc. — remain unfinished due to lack of buyers and thousands of additional units are already approved but not yet built. This project approval was certainly not necessary to provide housing here. We already have plenty. How did they get around this fact?

According to a country supervisors report: “In response to claims that a 33,000-unit oversupply of approved housing units exists in the Santa Clarita Valley, staff explained that, while many of these units may have certain land use approvals, they are not necessarily approved for immediate construction. Therefore, there is no existing oversupply of existing housing in the area.”

Wow, the staff needs to review their files and maybe even take a tour of local construction sites to make sure they have their facts straight. But why did the supervisors believe them? Surely an elected official who cared about his or her community would have asked a few questions about this statement.

After all, this project will have a huge impact on our community. Not only will it destroy a particularly sensitive area of the Santa Clara River, Los Angeles County’s last free-flowing river, but local residents will also face increased air- and water-quality problems, the costs of potential downstream flooding and substantial added traffic to the freeways and local streets.

There is no guarantee that Newhall Land and its checkered financial history will have the funding to pay for needed infrastructure for the project.

In spite of residents’ requests for bonding to ensure that taxpayers would not get stuck with the bill, the supervisors accepted the developer’s statement that everything was fine because it had thus far paid its share on two freeway off-ramps required for previous project approvals.

Among the other findings made for this project:

The board finds that the design of the subdivision and the proposed improvements will not cause substantial environmental damage or substantial or avoidable injury to fish and wildlife or their habitat, as appropriate mitigation measures have been incorporated into the conditions of approval.

The board finds substantial benefits resulting from implementation of the project outweigh its unavoidable significant effects on visual, quality, air quality, solid-waste services and agricultural resources.

I wonder how many local residents would agree that building Newhall Ranch is really so important that the added air pollution, trash and loss of the scenic highway status (the Santa Clara River will be hidden behind strip malls when this project is built) is an acceptable trade-off. Do the people in Val Verde really think that expanding Chiquita Canyon Landfill is just fine because Newhall Ranch will be a substantial benefit to them? I doubt it.

“The board finds that there is no evidence that the proposed project will be materially detrimental to the use, enjoyment, or valuation of property of other persons located in the vicinity of the project site,” a country report stated.

What about the downstream property owners that raised concerns about flooding and water pollution? What about parents who are worried about increasing asthma rates from air pollution. What about commuters already facing severe traffic jams?

How could the three supervisors who voted for this project honestly believe these statements?

Most residents in Santa Clarita don’t have time to read the board’s agenda packets; far fewer take time off work to attend their meetings. We depend on elected representatives to make good decisions on our behalf. But, perhaps it is time for all of us to watch a little more closely.

In a new era of public demands for fiscal responsibility, transparency and fairness from government agencies and officials, SCOPE believes this approval represents a disservice to the taxpayers, homeowners and residents of the Santa Clarita Valley and to the entire county.

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment.

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