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Haskell Canyon: Keeping their way of life

Families fight to prevent new housing development from being built in quiet neighborhood

Posted: February 16, 2009 12:09 a.m.
Updated: February 16, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Residents of Haskell Canyon Ranch gather on a cul-de-sac at Placerview Trail where developers seek to extend the road to accommodate 484 more homes. Residents of Haskell Canyon Ranch gather on a cul-de-sac at Placerview Trail where developers seek to extend the road to accommodate 484 more homes.
Residents of Haskell Canyon Ranch gather on a cul-de-sac at Placerview Trail where developers seek to extend the road to accommodate 484 more homes.

There was a time when John Haskell and his hogs had the run of this place.

In 1890, the Haskell Ranch stretched across 800 hilly acres south of what is now the Angeles National Forest.

He and his neighbors, the Agajanians, found living in the valley - now called Haskell Canyon Ranch - a comfortable place to raise their families and a profitable place to raise hogs.

Now, 120 years later, close to 200 families living in the same hills want exactly the same thing - minus the pigs.

Last week, they had to fight to keep Haskell Canyon Ranch a comfortable place to raise their kids and stop a San Diego home developer from building close to 500 homes north of their community.

The new homes would usher in more than 5,100 more car trips through their neighborhood every day, according to a Los Angeles County study.

So on Thursday, fifteen Haskell Canyon Ranch residents got out of their beds before the sun came up and made the trip to downtown Los Angeles to plead their case before the Regional Planning Commission.

Their plea was simple and familiar - too many homes, too many cars, too many people.

They had rallied in front of the commissioners before - two dozen of them back in October. This time they came prepared to deliver a decisive knockout punch that wouldn't allow the developer, Corky McMillin Companies, to get back up and re-draft a new plan to still bring 500 homes on top of their community.

Perri Shimkler talked about protecting children on their streets.

Kevin Card cited environmental concerns including the number of trucks hauling earth through their backyards for a year and emitting diesel exhaust.

"I have two little girls," Card said. "I woke them both up 5:30 in the morning and took them down to the meeting. I thought it was important that the commission saw the faces of the families that are going to be impacted by this."

A pioneer spirit
The Corky McMillin Companies began in San Diego almost 50 years ago with Macey L. "Corky" McMillin Jr.

His company continues to thrive under the direction of his surviving sons, Mark and Scott, with this latest project they call Copper Creek. Despite record foreclosures and stalled projects in Santa Clarita Valley, McMillin's plan calls for 484 homes, a park, 30 open space lots and land set aside for an elementary school, seven debris basins and a water tank.

It wants to succeed where so many of its competitors fail - SunCal in bankruptcy, LandSource in bankruptcy - by transforming 452 acres of hilly terrain off the eastern end of Copper Hill Drive into a thriving community.

To accomplish this, Corky McMillin must first get the area re-zoned from "non-urban" status to "urban."

The difference means at least 315 fewer homes with current zoning permitting only 167 homes to be built there.

On Thursday, after having had several meetings with residents to talk about traffic concerns, Corky McMillin was prepared for the showdown at the planning commission.

"We're looking forward to moving the project in the right direction," said Corky McMillin spokeswoman Sandy Perlotti. "We feel optimistic."

The map of undeveloped land in unincorporated Santa Clarita Valley is like a coloring book. McMillin wants to color in the last remaining space between urban development along Cooper Hill Drive to the south and the southern border of federally-protected Angeles National Forest to the north of the valley.

Right now, the only structure on the unincorporated land is a single wood frame home and several concrete slabs of what once was a hog farm - a symbol of the John Haskell example as not only a place to live comfortably, but a place to make money.

Corky McMillin, still foraging ahead with pioneer gusto, is still in the business of making homes and making money, in spite of these harsh economic times.

Reshaping the hills south of the Angeles National Forest won't be easy according the calculations presented in its building application.

It plans to grade more than 6.3 million cubic yards of "cut" and 6 million cubic yards of fill and plans to truck more than 286,000 cubic yards of earth off-site in order to build the access road, Street "S," from Copper Hill.

In clearing the land for homes, McMillin must get permission to cut down 84 oak trees and encroach on a protected zone containing 19 other oaks. All the trees are relatively small with no mature specially-protected "heritage oaks" involved.

But, while homes crowding trees remains a concern, motorists crowding city streets remains the over-riding deal breaker.

In a traffic impact study completed in December 2007 by the County's Department of Public Works, William J. Winter, assistant Deputy Director of the Traffic and Lighting Division concluded: "The proposed project is expected to generate approximately 5,188 vehicle trips daily, with approximately 566 and 445 vehicle trips during the a.m. and p.m. peak hours respectively."

Final decision
On Saturday afternoon, two wee cars criss-crossed Placerview Trail, a cul-de-sac of 44 homes off of Old Spanish Trail, off Cooper Hill. The drivers were about four-years-old pedaling back and forth from one side to the other as their parents watched on the sidewalks.

That's the way it is in Haskell Canyon Ranch.

Down the road from Placerview, on a neighboring street, was an inflatable "bounce house" one mom and dad had rented for their child's birthday.

Kids play basketball, rollerblade, ride their bikes on streets that promise to see more than 5,100 more cars coming and going through the area.

Enough is enough.

That's the message the group of 15 made loud and clear Thursday and it was also the message echoed by planners working for both City of Santa Clarita planners and the County o Los Angeles.

"I think we brought a personal side to the debate," said Chris Howell, whose 12-year-old daughter, Amanda, sat next to him. "I think we needed to be there because we needed to put a face to the situation.

"When I spoke, they were nodding," he said about the commissioners. "They were getting the passion side of what we were trying to say."

Suzie Tae, supervising regional planner of the county's Land Divisions Section, recommended commissioners deny Corky McMillin's request for a zoning change.

As she told The Signal on the eve of the hearing: "We have concerns about the proposed urban density."
Santa Clarita city planners told the Commission the same thing - no zoning change.

"We were evaluating the project in terms of the existing zoning," said Sharon Sorensen, senior planner with the City of Santa Clarita. "And, we agreed with the county."

Sorensen and city planner David Koontz are "heroes," according to Joyce Stein, champion of the "Stop Copper Creek" campaign.

"They didn't have to help us but they did," she said. "They've been wonderful to us."

On Thursday, at the end of a long day of what could be the final battle over Copper Creek, as the panel of commissioners looked down on the speakers, reviewing Corky McMillin's zoning request, they heard the county's own planners tell them "No," Santa Clarita city planners say "No" Haskell Canyon Ranch residents say "No," and the kids say "No."

In the end, the commissioners said "No."

Stein and the band of 15 moms and days were ecstatic.

"The commissioners said, ‘We do not see a resounding benefit to the community.' It was just great for us," Stein said.

Now, Corky McMillin has to be decide if moving millions of cubic yards of hillside for 167 homes is worth it.
The company's decision is expected March 18 at the Hall of Records, at 320 W. Temple Street, in Los Angeles.


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