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Where Have all the SEAs Gone?

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: March 6, 2008 7:38 p.m.
Updated: May 7, 2008 5:02 a.m.
I am always suspicious when a developer wants to annex into the city. I immediately ask myself "What is it in this development that not even the county would allow?" I watched the proposals for Valencia I and II be annexed in and then approved by the city in 2000.

More recently, both Lyons Canyon and Las Lomas have attempted to annex out of the county and into Santa Clarita and the City of Los Angeles respectively. I was thinking about what all these projects have in common and realized that they were all attempting to develop in a county designated Significant Ecological Area, or SEA, for short.

What is an SEA? It is a designation in the Los Angeles County General Plan that denotes a particularly important natural area. Originally, there were 64 SEAs in Los Angeles County. Creating the list was the work of a group of dedicated and far-sighted community members and biologists in the 1970s who worked to preserve these natural treasures for future generations to enjoy.

The SEA designation was incorporated into Los Angeles County's first General Plan in conjunction with the land-use and open space elements. Language in the Santa Clarita Area Wide Plan, the county's plan for the Santa Clarita Valley, echoed that of the General Plan.

An area qualified for SEA designation if it contained one or more of the following features:
  • If it is the habitat for a rare, endangered or threatened plant or animal
  • If it represents a biotic community that is one of a kind or restricted in distribution regionally or in Los Angeles County
  • If it is a wildlife corridor that species depend on for migration or breeding
  • If it represents biotic resources that are of scientific interest due to their adaptation to an extreme or an unusual variation in a population or community
  • If the area is important to a game species or fisheries
  • If it would provide for a relatively undisturbed example of the natural biotic communities in Los Angeles County
  • Then one catchall: "The area is worthy of being a SEA, but does not fit the other criteria."
So the Santa Clarita Valley was given five SEA designations, the Santa Clara River (SEA #23), San Francisquito Canyon (SEA#19), the Santa Susanna Mountains (SEA #20), the Valley Oaks Savannah (SEA#64) and Lyons Canyon (#63). If you are at all familiar with these beautiful natural areas, it will be immediately apparent why they fit into the above criteria.

The county didn't disallow development in SEAs, but there were rules that were supposed to be followed. For instance, any development was supposed to be very low density and compatible with the SEA. Roads were not supposed to bisect SEAs either, to ensure that the habitat would not be piece-mealed.

As you might imagine, the push for development soon incurred into our SEAs throughout the county but especially in the Santa Clarita Valley. SCOPE has tried to draw a line in the sand to force strict adherence to the General Plan for each incursion. We have joined or brought litigation to try to protect these jewels of nature each time such an incursion is proposed.

The Valley Oaks Savannah was the first to go with the development of the Westridge project. Only 150 acres remain of the original 400, but at least many of those beautiful Valley Oaks still exist today for motorists and others to enjoy as the drive by on I-5.

The Santa Clara River SEA and the San Francisquito Creek SEA extended far into the flood plain. SCOPE and others won a suit in 1995, and again against the Newhall Ranch and West Creek projects in an attempt to protect this last wild river, one of its major tributaries and its many endangered species. Unfortunately, the city, without a strong SEA designation similar to Los Angeles County, annexed Valencia I and II and allowed development to proceed. They have continued to allow development in what was the county SEA designation in the river flood plain for the Mercedes dealership, Riverpark, Keystone and Soledad projects. Our children will fault us for not providing better protection for the Santa Clara River SEA.

The more recent proposal for Lyon Canyon, west of I-5 near Calgrove, would have destroyed SEA #63. The developers attempted to annex it into the City of Santa Clarita. When they were unable to do this, the project quietly went away.

The much-debated Las Lomas project is in SEA #20, so the development would not be able to exceed 200 units according to the Los Angeles General Plan. But the developer is trying to annex into the City of Los Angeles, another jurisdiction that does not have the SEA designation.

So it was no surprise to me to find that the most recent annexation proposal for a development of 1,200 units and a hotel along the Santa Clara River in the Sand Canyon area is mostly in the Santa Clara River SEA #23, the flood plain of the Santa Clara River. Such a proposal would not be allowed under the County General Plan. Will our city be so hungry for property tax revenue that it will fail once again to protect the Santa Clara River SEA and allow this development anyway?

Cam Noltemeyer is a SCOPE board member. His column represents his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.


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