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Court rules against Vista Canyon Ranch project

Posted: May 14, 2013 6:05 p.m.
Updated: May 14, 2013 6:05 p.m.

A Superior Court judge has handed a setback to planners of a large Sand Canyon-area development in a decision that environmental groups called a victory and the developer said dealt largely with technical issues.

The lawsuit brought by Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, Friends of the Santa Clara River and a group called Homeowners for Neighborhood Preservation challenged the Vista Canyon Ranch project on several environmental issues.

The mixed-use project proposes to build more than 1,000 homes and almost a million square feet of commercial space on 185 acres across the Santa Clara River from Canyon Country Park and west of Sand Canyon.

The lawsuit claims the Environmental Impact Report for the project did not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, ignoring the area’s designation as a Significant Ecological Area, according to those who brought the suit.

“At a time when we face reduced rainfall and loss of imported water from Northern California, we must not pave over water recharge areas as this project does by filling the floodplain,” said Lynne Plambeck, president of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment.

The judge found the report prepared by Vista Canyon Ranch LLC flawed and ruled it could not reference 1,620 square miles of the river’s watershed in claiming the project had no effect on the local environment, the environmental groups said.

Ron Bottorff of Friends of the River said a suitable environmental assessment must focus on the effect of construction in the immediate area of the project.

“We are gratified that this judge recognized the ongoing problem of cumulative effects to the river,” Bottorff said.

The proposed banking and filling in the river “cumulatively leads to the loss of natural river function,” he said.
Jim Backer, president of JSB Development, which proposed Vista Canyon, said the judge ruled in favor of the environmental groups on only two of 12 issues they raised.

“The court identified a couple of issues that they didn’t think our 13,000 pages of EIR ... sufficiently addressed,” Backer said in an interview Tuesday. “We think both can be sufficiently addressed for the court.”

One issue the judge upheld dealt with the way in which the environmental documents incorporated references to other documents, Backer said.

The second involved Vista Canyon’s watershed plan, which Backer said the court ruled was too large.

The ruling did not challenge “project issues or something that didn’t have enough mitigation,” he said.
JSB could appeal the judge’s ruling, which must still be finalized, or it could revise the environmental documents and refile them, Backer said.

Either way it’s a setback of “most likely a year or more,” he said.

“We were hoping to get everything ready to start next spring,” he said. The best-case scenario for the developer would be a delay of just months to summer 2014, he said.

“If there is a re-do and they’re still not in compliance, we will keep after them,” Bottorff said. “We’re staying with the problem.”

The case is an example of how state environmental laws have been “turned into an abuse by the same people who sue every project,” Backer said, citing Friends of the River and SCOPE specifically. “It costs us time and it costs us money.

“The court really didn’t condemn the project or find fault with the analysis of the project, just with the execution of the EIR, he said.

“It’s very disappointing. We’ve owned that land for seven years,” he said.
JSB conducted more than 80 meetings in the community, he said.

“It was welcomed by the community and welcomed by the city. But all that seems to go to naught,” he said.

“We respect the CEQA process, but we think it’s become basically abused by people who are against growth and are against opportunity.”


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