Like some unending TV soap opera, the efforts to permit Newhall Ranch and the persistent opposition of community activists continues. – And it’s not even close to being over yet.

More than a year ago the SCOPE joined four other environmental organizations, (including the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, to challenge the first phase approval of the massive 21,000 unit Newhall Ranch project. The largest “newtown” urban sprawl project ever approved in the state of California is located adjacent to the Santa Clara River, Los Angeles County’s last free-flowing river. The preservation of this rare gem, inhabited by several endangered species and remaining a prime example of what the Los Angeles River could have been without all that concrete, has been a focus for SCOPE and others for over a decade.

Aerial Newhall RanchAfter successful litigation against the Ranch Specific Plan (where an August 2000 Court decision set the project EIR aside for failure to address questions surrounding its water supply), the developer simply returned with an additional eight volumes of reports. In spite of all the disclosed impacts, Los Angeles County simply couldn’t say no.

The original owners, the Newhall Land and Farming Company, did not survive the housing downturn. But after a bankruptcy that cost the California Employees Pension Fund (CalPers) its biggest loss ever (approximately 1 billion dollars), the project has returned from the dead, now funded by several New York hedge funds.

No longer locally owned, Newhall Ranch has now raised the ire of a much broader group of people.

As local tax payers realize the potential costs of the infrastructure that they apparently will be made to fund, and the impacts of global warming become more apparent, this massive auto oriented project makes less and less sense. Rising gas prices may ring a death knell to the project as moderate economic level homeowners find it more and more expensive to fill a commuter gas tank every week.

In the meantime, a lawsuit filed by several national, state and local environmental groups, including SCOPE, against the State Fish and Game Department for its approval of Newhall’s River Alteration permit, has delayed its groundbreaking. This case is now at the appellate court.

SCOPE and others also filed legal challenges to the first two tract approvals, the 1444 unit Landmark tract and the 4050 unit Mission tract, both immediately adjacent to the Santa Clara River in one of the most sensitive habitat areas of the river.

After a ruling in favor of the conservation groups, the developer’s attorney did the unthinkable. He filed a bias claim against the Judge, apparently in large part because his clients didn’t like her Decision against them. Whatever happened to the Rule of Law?

The Judge was rightfully and quickly cleared of any misconduct, but this unseemly tactic threw a well-warranted delay for Newhall into the legal proceedings. With the Alteration permit still up in the air, a stay was granted on the Landmark proceeding.

As you might suppose, this has apparently left the developer and its hedge fund owners a bit out of pocket. To make up for these delays and the continued slow real estate market, Lennar Corporation, the Florida based builder and parent company of Newhall, held a year end fire sale,  liquidating several of its real estate assets to beef up December cash balances. One of those assets was Valencia Water Company, a company Newhall had owned since the 1960’s. This is the same water company that served their many developments and is scheduled to serve Newhall Ranch.

In a lighting quick back room deal over the holidays with only 24 hours notice to the public, Castaic Lake Water Agency moved $73.8 million in public funds into the hands of this Corporation and their New York hedge fund owners. They bought Valencia Water Company without conducting California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review and with an advance promise to serve all of Newhall’s projects in the Purchase Contract, a promise they cannot legally make.

But perhaps the most disturbing fact about this transaction is that Castaic, a state water wholesaler is legally prohibited from owning this water retailer. SCOPE, joined by Friends of the Santa Clara River immediately filed a complaint with the Public Utilities Commission, objecting to these illegal actions and the 16% rate increase that will apparently pay Castaic back for the cost of the purchase.

The Public Utilities Commission will hold a hearing on this rate increase and the water company purchase in May. Sign up for our eNews at www.scope.org to keep up to date this issue.

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