Development in Floodplain Would Devastate Wildlife Habitat, Hurt Cultural Resources and Cost  Taxpayers a Bundle    

On March 22nd SCOPE joined a coalition of five public-interest groups to sue Los Angeles County in Superior Court over its approval of permits for the first phase of the sprawling Newhall Ranch development — one of the largest single residential development projects ever contemplated in California — proposed for 12,000 acres along the Santa Clara River in northwest L.A. County.

Newhall Ranch would create a city of more than 60,000 on a six-mile stretch of the river that is currently rugged open space and farmland by channeling the county’s last mostly free-flowing river.

SCOPE remains concerned about the substantial burden this project will place on local residents and taxpayers.

“Before a single house has been built, Newhall Ranch has already cost California’s taxpayers and workforce, including the county’s own staff, nearly a billion dollars of lost pension funds,” said Lynne Plambeck, president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment. “Although the state will never recover any of the largest single loss ever suffered by CalPERS, and will spend millions more in public monies to build roads, bridges and other infrastructure to serve this project, the county has once again endorsed this same development that will threaten the region’s water supply, worsen air pollution and cause further gridlock on our highways.”

The construction approved by the county on Feb. 23 would require filling of the Santa Clara River’s floodplain on a large scale; channelizing over three miles of river and converting many tributary streams to concrete-lined channels; unearth and desecrate American Indian burial sites, sacred places and cultural natural resources such as the California condor; and threaten the San Fernando Valley spineflower — a species found in only one other location on the planet.

“It’s appalling that L.A. County would be so reckless with the last free-flowing river in the region,” said Ron Bottorff with the Friends of the Santa Clara River. “This area has lost all but 3 percent of its historic river woodlands; the county’s approval would replace some of the finest riparian areas remaining anywhere in Southern California with ugly strip malls and housing we don’t need.”

The Santa Clara River is one of two major Southern California rivers remaining in a relatively natural state. It flows for about 116 miles from its headwaters on the north slope of the San Gabriel Mountains near Acton to its confluence with the Pacific Ocean between Oxnard and Ventura; its watershed is home to a great diversity of very rare species, among them the unarmored threespine stickleback fish, California condor, least Bell’s vireo, southwestern willow flycatcher, California red-legged frog, arroyo toad, southern steelhead trout and San Fernando Valley spineflower. Wildlands of the Santa Clara River provides a full accounting of rare  environmental resources of this precious landscape.

“Developing in a river floodplain is never a good idea,” said Ileene Anderson, biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We should protect our precious water resources, not destroy them.”

After promising groundbreaking for the project in 2000, approval of this first phase some 12 years later is the first authorization permitting construction. Plans have been slowed by the bankruptcy of LandSource Communities Development, the predecessor of Newhall Ranch’s current developer. CalPERS, California’s public pension fund, lost $970 million of state employees’ investment in Newhall Ranch with the LandSource bankruptcy. Now, with the infusion of cash and majority ownership by several out-of-state hedge funds, investors are again looking to move forward on this destructive and questionable proposal.

“The project information was substantially changed at the last minute just prior to the final hearing before the county supervisors,” said attorney Dean Wallraff. “The public and the decision-makers should have a document they can read through in a straightforward wayto understand the environmental impacts of the project, and this isn’t it.”

The suit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court under the California Environmental Quality Act, and will include additional “Map Act” and “Plan Consistency” issues. Brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Santa Clara River, Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment (SCOPE), and Wishtoyo Foundation and its Ventura Coastkeeper program, the suit will ask the court to review the legality of the county’s approval process in order to protect this last remaining river resource area.

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