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Terri Crain: Don’t misuse environmental protection law

Posted: May 23, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: May 23, 2013 2:00 a.m.

In 2008, Santa Clarita was named the most business- friendly city in Los Angeles County by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation.

That prestigious honor may still hold true for small businesses in the area as many are thriving.

One example is Quallion, maker of lithium-ion batteries, which recently opened a new plant in Santa Clarita so the company could have more space for material production.

The opening of the Santa Clarita plant will create up to 50 new jobs.

Another is Ebyline — an online marketplace that connects publishers with freelance journalists — which in just over a few years raised $6.5 million in investment funding.

The company, which was started by Santa Clarita entrepreneurs in the Saugus garage of one of its co-founders, is now a successful online business which employs nine full-time workers and contracts with 15 freelancers.

Unfortunately, the story for large developers is quite different.

Almost 20 years have passed since Newhall Land first filed an application with Los Angeles County to develop Newhall Ranch.

The large piece of land had been identified as appropriate for urban development under the L.A. County General Plan Update in 1990 and the developer filed an application in 1994.

Flash forward 19 years and there have been thousands of pages of environmental review documents for the proposed development that would add more than 60,000 jobs and 20,000 new homes to the Santa Clarita Valley.

In 2012, the Signal reported that the "master-planned community had been reviewed by 25 government agencies, had 21 public hearings and several lawsuits, and was the topic of more than 700 meetings."

Earlier this year, the project had another setback.

After a 10-year review process led by US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Fish and Wildlife, the State Fish and Wildlife, the Regional Water Quality Control Board and other agencies, Newhall Ranch received its environmental permits, only to have them legally challenged.

So the question remains, what incentive does this developer have to continue on? After spending "more than $10 million to create the most environmentally sensitive development plan in Los Angeles County history" they have been faced with one setback after another.

Just recently, another local project (Vista Canyon) has been held up by California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) litigation.

Over seven years have passed since a group of investors led by JSB Development bought the original site of the Mitchell family, which first came to the Santa Clarita Valley in 1860 — over 150 years ago.

The project includes development of 1,100 residential units and almost one million square feet of commercial space designed with a Town Center in a transit-oriented development that would include a Metrolink Station and bus transfer facility — as well as a 10-acre park, four miles of trails and numerous community amenities.

The project at build-out could create as many as 4,000 permanent jobs.

Extensive community outreach resulting in substantial community support led to the City Council approving the project in May 2011.

Litigation was filed by SCOPE and other activist groups in June 2011.

SCOPE and these other groups have filed over 40 lawsuits against nearly all kinds of development in the Santa Clarita Valley including housing tracts, industrial parks, the local hospital, and commercial centers.

These lawsuits resulted not only in delays to these developments but delays to important components of the projects including schools, parks, roads and even a youth baseball league.

Once again, a small number of no-growth activists have used the complexities of CEQA to impede economic progress in our community.

California’s economic growth has always been dependent on the availability of reliable, good-paying jobs that are the backbone of local communities.

These jobs come from small, independent businesses and start ups, but they also come from large corporations’ development and infrastructure projects that help our state and local economies thrive.

If we do not allow development projects to go through – with the proper environmental review — where will we be in 20 years?

Will population growth stagger? Will there be private investment in the state?

If the past 20 years is any indication we will not be able to accommodate our growing population.

Santa Clarita is the third largest city in Los Angeles County with a population of 200,000 as of December 2012.

According to city data, Santa Clarita’s population grew by 17.5 percent from 2000 to 2010 and was almost twice the growth experienced in all of Los Angeles County.

That growth is expected to continue.

While we have an obligation to protect the environment for future generations, we also must pursue responsible development that creates jobs, stimulates economic growth and ensures that we have adequate housing capacity and infrastructure to accommodate our growing population.

Unfortunately, this stalled development in the Santa Clarita Valley is not unique and many other regions of the state are facing similar obstacles.

In order for our state to be competitive again, state leaders need to enact policies that will improve our business climate and give developers and businesses a reason to stay in California.

The first sight of relief, SB 731, passed the Senate Environmental Quality Committee this week.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg declared his commitment to carry meaningful reform to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) through this bill.

Steinberg described his bill as seeking that "elusive middle ground between those who support fundamentally undermining the statute and those who support the status quo."

I’m hopeful that meaningful CEQA reform will happen this year.

Good projects like Newhall Ranch and Vista Canyon have been proposed, considered and stalled across the state.

I encourage the legislature and the governor to demonstrate their commitment to revitalizing our state by delivering on promises to streamline review processes, accommodate development and minimize costly litigation.

Terri Crain is the president and CEO of the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce.


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