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Welcome to the SCOPE blog – a place meant to keep you updated on environmental issues that will affect your quality of life in the Santa Clarita Valley.  As we add to the site, you will find postings of our public comment letters, background documentation, and news links to a variety of topics of interest to our members and supporters. We welcome your thoughts and suggestions.

Contact:  lynnepl1@juno.com

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Aerial Newhall Ranch As most people probably already know, Newhall Ranch is a massive project located along Los Angeles County’s last free flowing river, the Santa Clara. It will pave over 1500 acres of prime farmland, fill the flood plain with 7 million cubic yards of dirt, levy a portion of the river and concrete  tributaries, some of the very things that the City of Los Angeles is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to undo along the Los Angeles River.

First proposed in the 1990s, it has faced strong opposition for decades.  In an effort to silence this opposition, Five Points, the owner of the project, offered to settle with these organizations. The agreement, accepted by two of the groups, gave them $15 million dollars for a conservation fund, and substantial additional amenities, totaling another $10 Million.  In exchange the groups will cease all litigation, tell public agencies that they no longer oppose the next 26,000 units to be approved decades into the future in one of the most sensitive areas of the Santa Clara River, and agree not to comment on these future projects.  Of course there was nothing in this agreement that forbade them from commenting on projects that compete with FivePoint in the housing market.  What a sweet deal for the developer.

SCOPE and Friends of the Santa Clara River did not settle. While we can’t speak for the Friends Board members, we know that their deliberations were similar to our own.

Why didn’t we sign? We felt that this was a Faustian bargain incompatible with our mission statement, our advocacy for public involvement and our commitment to the public discussion that is necessary to keep our democracy healthy. It violated our pledge to protect the Santa Clara River, its treasure trove of habitat and rare and endangered species, and our water supply.

It turns out these were exactly the ethical issues cited by Christopher Stone, an environmental law professor at USC  in a 2001 LA Times article on another such deal:

“You’ve got organizations–the very purpose of which is to monitor and speak out–and they agree not to engage in the very function for which they have been established and for which they are being financed by people who make voluntary contributions. It really sounds bad,” he said. “And forced speech is all the worse.”[1]

Yes, we know that in our current society it is very difficult to win against the big money interests of national development corporations, oil companies or the big banks. It is a David and Goliath battle. But isn’t our very democracy about trying? Isn’t that what the Civil Rights movement is about? And what about climate actions against the oil companies? Certainly these are battles of might vs. right.

It is the code of silence, the effective and complete muzzling of public interest groups who have received public support through their promise to defend such issues,  that makes such deals particularly troubling. Just as insidious, are the often successful efforts to get those groups to muzzle others.  For instance, as the huge Centennial project recently came up for review, the Sierra Club reminded  members that they cannot comment on this project due to a 2008 agreement made with its’ developer in exchange for a large conservation easement. The deal went further, also requiring that reports on the area be kept confidential.

Since 2000 such agreements to no longer speak out have become common. Developers and their sophisticated attorneys decided it was cheaper to pay out for silence then continue the expensive and unpredictable public debate.

Some groups may feel development set backs or conservation funds are worth the trade off. Or, a group may be forced to settle when it can no longer fund the enormous legal expenses, or the court case is lost.

To us, such outcomes seem at least partly caused by the planning agencies. People often joke that planning is now done by lawsuit. In LA County and all other jurisdictions of which I am aware, every land use approval contains a clause stating that the developer will be financially responsible for any legal challenge. In a perverse way, this practice encourages the agency to approve whatever is before them, in order to avoid being sued by the developer, while perhaps even secretly hoping that some community group will sue and force the developer in Court to do the right thing. When major issues like water supply, traffic and air pollution remain unanswered, community groups do their best to demand that such issues be addressed.  But it remains a David and Goliath battle fraught with Faustian bargains.

Is this just the art of compromise, or is it something more sinister? When the public loses its voice, is that really a win? Whatever viewpoint one has, it is time to ask why this is happening and examine the consequences. The Santa Clara River certainly needs a conservation fund, but was giving up and supporting a huge urban sprawl project at a time when it is more important than ever to oppose such auto-oriented projects, really the way to do it?

We don’t think so.

[1] Environmentalists Pay Price for Compromise, April 29, 2001|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

 

Our community’s fight against the Newhall Ranch development may qualify as historic. It is certainly epic. Along the way, we’ve been called NIMBYs and sometimes worse.

And yet we’ve been vindicated time and again by the courts, including the California Supreme Court, which ruled in 2015 that the developer failed to adequately address the environmental impacts of its massive planned community in the foothills north of Los Angeles.

Now our fight has taken us to the California State Legislature, where a bill that appears completely innocuous on its face will allow the Newhall Land & Farming Co. to stick its wells into our aquifer and pump out groundwater on a monumental scale.

This would finally solve the riddle of water for a new town that envisions 60,000 people, seven public schools and a golf course in the farming heart of Santa Clara River Valley.

It’s been twenty years since Los Angeles County first approved the company’s plan to turn 12,000 acres along the Santa Clara River into the largest master planned community in California history.

Since that vote, not a cubic yard of earth has been subdivided, not a house has been built, because of our challenges. Over the past 15 years, more than one judge has found that Newhall Land & Farming has underestimated the project’s effects on wildlife, including the steelhead salmon that breed downstream.

Santa Clara River downstream of Newhall Ranch after a rainstorm

For now, the river and its riparian corridor remain the habitat of the endangered California condor, arroyo toad, threespine stickleback fish and the spineflower. The farm remains the farm.

But the Newhall Company, which is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Lennar Homes/Five Point, is every bit as persistent as we are. And its pockets are a lot deeper.

It is reaching into those pockets to finally attempt to mitigate the project’s greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, the company is pushing new legislation, SB 634 that will secure the sources of water it needs to serve 21,000 new households.

The bill works in classic “Trojan Horse” fashion. On paper, it accomplishes nothing more than a consolidation of water agencies scattered across the Santa Clarita Valley. It creates a new water agency called the Santa Clarita Water District. This super agency that will be able to act as both a wholesaler of water from the State Water Project and a retailer of groundwater from the Santa Clarita Valley.

Nothing terribly alarming about that.

But the hidden reality is that Newhall Land & Farming desperately needs surface water and groundwater to make their mega development happen, and this bill will shore up those supplies. Here’s how:

The company has purchased the rights to a yearly 1,600 acre feet of water from a wealthy Kern County farming family. It only needs to find a way to bring that water up and over the mountain into its taps. The company also has access to 7,032 acre-feet of local water that it currently pumps out of the ground to grow its crops. Converting this water from agricultural use to suburban use is not a given, however. The company needs to be inside the jurisdiction of a water district to do so.

SB 634 takes care of these obstacles in one neat swoop.

The wheeling powers of the new super agency will deliver the Kern water to the taps of Newhall Ranch. The agency’s legal authority will then allow Newhall Ranch to continue pumping vast amounts of groundwater and convert the use from crops to houses. Finally, the super agency will be able to access water from the State Water Project and send it Newhall’s way.

The bill will be heard next by the Appropriations committee in August. We are hoping committee members are aware of the real intent of this legislation. It is not about neatening up water district boundaries. It’s about the water itself.

 

Lynne Plambeck and Stacy Fortner

(Published in the Sacramento Bee 7/27/17)

Possible Talking Points for Newhall Ranch Comment Letters

Aerial Newhall Ranch(Choose the one or two that interest you, and/or choose your own). It’s important that these agencies hear from you and me!

 

  • Houses should not be built over a closed oil field (Mission Village). There is too great a chance that airborne VOCs will leak up into the homes.
  • The exclusion of a traffic chapter make the supplemental document inadequate because traffic has greatly increased since the 2007 review was released and new projects have been approved. A chapter updating the traffic analysis should be added.
  • Controlling greenhouse gases and traffic congestion are intimately related.  Traffic congestion in the Santa Clarita area is already over the top and will only get worse if Landmark Village and Mission Village are built as planned.  It is necessary to consider these two factors together and absolutely ensure no net increase in GHG for these projects.
  • The promise of zero GHGs sounds good on paper but the enforcement reality is lacking:

There are no safeguards to track the future offsets that will need to be bought;

Will the offsets actually exist to be bought?  Will enough offsets be available?

Who will assure that the offsets are actually bought?

Who will assure that the offsets are actually effective to offset the amount of GHGs needed to be offset?

How will the use of electric cars be monitored and enforced in order to gauge if the touted GHG reductions actually occur?

All these assurances need to be codified as enforceable mitigation measures.

The project is still too big and impactful to the Valley and flies in the face of 21st century smart planning – it needs to be significantly scaled back and away from the Santa Clara River

 

  • Where’s the analysis of the methane that will be generated from trash created by this massive project, what about emissions from trash truck – the GHG analysis in not sufficient
  • The severe water cutbacks required in the SCV in the last six years are new information showing that we cannot accommodate this massive project with our current water resources. That water table dropped 70 feet and several wells went dry.
  • There have been a lot of articles about how offsets are often a green washing scam. What guarantee do we have that the offsets being purchased as GHG mitigation will result in measurable, provable, reductions in GHG emissions beyond what would have otherwise occurred?
  • Mitigation for GHG that is proposed to be bought as pollution credits in other countries is unenforceable and unverifiable. AND it will not help our local air pollution problems.
  • No mention or itemization of the external creators of GHG for this project, like methane from waste disposal, energy production for water delivery and desalination of waste water, off site energy production for infrastructure, auto and truck deliveries and other uses is not in the Environmental document because those chapters are excluded from the document. These issues must be discussed in order for the document to be valid.
  • Our Valley is already out of federal compliance for dust pollution (PM10 and PM mil) that causes asthma and permanent lung damage and affects our children’s health. Filling the flood plain with 200 million cubic yards of dirt will substantially add to this pollution.
  • To protect the river water quality and the endangered fish, the project should be moved away from the Santa Clara River. Filling the floodplain with 200 million cubic yards of dirt hurts water replenishment and will massively add to dust pollution in the Santa Clarita Valley.
  • There should be a .25 mile buffer around the spine flower preserves to protect this endangered flower. The proposed endowment is not sufficient to provide protection. We see what has happened in the valley oaks Savannah (SEA 64 – no trails as promised, inadequate management to preserve the oaks, oaks dying)

02-02-2016-drought-water-level-1Sustainable Pumping of the Santa Clara River Alluvial Aquifer? – Hardly!

To see SCOPE’s full comments on the Santa Clarita Valley Urban Water Management Plan click here.UWMP SCOPE

Sustainable use of the alluvial aquifer was estimated to be 32,000 AF for the Upper Basin for many years.[1] Prior to the 1986 Slade report its yield was estimated to be even lower. We have attached a compendium of water reports citing those levels. It is interesting to note that the Slade report was commissioned during the housing boom of 1986, and found that more water would be available. As another housing boom developed around 2000, low and behold a 2000 “update” reported that even more water could be pumped from the Santa Clara River. In 2004 a new study conducted under the auspices of the Valencia Water Co claimed that 35,000AF may now be safely taken out of the Santa Clara River, even though the Slade report stated on page 88 of his 1986 report that continued development and hardscaping would reduce recharge to this aquifer.

For the last decade, this amount has been exceeded when pumping by Newhall Land, golf course and private well use is included. [2] It is odd that the agencies’ report ignores this pumping as though it is not occurring when in fact it is substantially exceeding safe yield. This pumping, and the over draft is not indicated on the charts or discussed in the body of the report.

Indications of overdraft of the basin abound, including most evidently the biological indication of vegetative loss in the center of the river from the drop in water levels. This indication is clearly cited in the USGS Circular 1186[3]:

“Ground-water pumping can affect not only water supply for human consumption but also the maintenance of instream-flow requirements for fish habitat and other environmental needs. Long-term reductions in streamflow can affect vegetation along streams (riparian zones) that serve critical roles in maintaining wildlife habitat and in enhancing the quality of surface water. Pumping-induced changes in the flow direction to and from streams may affect temperature, oxygen levels, and nutrient concentrations in the stream, which may in turn affect aquatic life in the stream.” USGS Result of River Pumping

We believe the agency has purposely ignored the issue of overdraft and subsidence because there is a real and obvious problem. It is imperative that a study of this issue be conducted due to the well-known fact that subsidence may preclude aquifer re-charge due to soil compression. Taking such a risk with our limited water resources is not acceptable.

The alluvial aquifer is currently at low water levels not seen since 1991[4]. This problem was clearly brought to light in April of this year when the SWP foothill feeder was closed for one week, eliminating imported water for the upper basin area. Apparently, alluvial ground water wells reached such a low level, that they broke air and produced cloudy water for residential customers during this time. [5]

Loss of alluvial well production is also documented in the latest Whittiker Bermite NPDES Report[6] which states:

“Since June 9, 2015, the high flow well 75-MW-35 has not been functional due to pump operational issues associated with low water levels in the well. Additionally, the low flow wells do not produce enough groundwater, if any, to allow treatment and

discharge to the storm drain. Due to the significant decline of the groundwater levels in the Northern Alluvium, all the NATP wells have been shut down and are not extracting groundwater for treatment at the NATP. Therefore, no discharge to the storm drain from the NATP occurred during this reporting period.

An untenable UWMP pumping regime is also indicated by the Agencies’ own report on Alluvial Pumping[7] which states beginning on page 3:

Conclusions – Rainfall records, groundwater level monitoring, and groundwater modeling together indicate that little to no recharge has occurred to the Alluvial Aquifer since the winter of 2010/spring of 2011 rainfall season. The groundwater level monitoring program shows that groundwater levels have declined at a fairly steady rate since that time, as has been observed in other past periods of local drought conditions (such as occurred in 1984 through 1992 and again in 1999 through 2004). The continued decline in groundwater levels that was observed in 2014 at many Alluvial Aquifer wells will continue in 2015 if little to no rainfall and streamflow recharge occurs to the local aquifer systems during the winter of 2014/spring of 2015 rainfall season.

Under this scenario, and assuming there are no new wells or modifications to existingwells and pumping systems, GSI’s primary conclusions regarding the achievability of the target pumping volumes from the Alluvial Aquifer in 2015 are presented in Table 1 and are summarized as follows:

  1. For the three retail water purveyors combined, the achievable yield from the Alluvial Aquifer in 2015 is likely between 17,100 and 21,800 AFY. The Groundwater Operating Plan’s drought-year target of 27,400 AFY of collective production by the three retail water purveyors will not be achievable if the drought continues through the winter of 2014/spring of 2015 rainfall season.
  1. The largest shortfall in yield is estimated to occur for VWC. The estimated achievable production volume for VWC wells (between 14,600 and 17,900 AFY in2015) creates shortfalls of (a) 3,600 to 6,900 AFY compared with VWC’s target

production under the Groundwater Operating Plan and (b) 1,100 to 4,400 AFY compared with the 2015 target production volume that was of interest to VWC.

  1. The estimated shortfalls in groundwater production from the Alluvial Aquifer are notably smaller for SCWD and NCWD than for VWC.
  1. SCWD’s wells likely can produce between 1,700 and 2,700 AFY from the Alluvial Aquifer in 2015. This represents a shortfall of 1,800 to 2,800 AFY compared with the Groundwater Operating Plan, and a shortfall of 1,500 to 2,500 AFY compared with the 2015 target production volume that was tested by GSI.
  1. NCWD’s wells likely can produce between 800 and 1,200 AFY from the Alluvial Aquifer in 2015. This represents a shortfall of 200 to 600 AFY compared with the Groundwater Operating Plan, and a shortfall of zero to 500 AFY compared with the 2015 target production volume that was tested by GSI.
  1. The estimates of the achievable yield listed in Table 1 are reasonable estimates of the groundwater production capacity from the Alluvial Aquifer that the three retail water purveyors can expect to achieve in 2015 should the local drought        continue. Actual groundwater production volumes from the Alluvial Aquifer could be notably higher if there are appreciable amounts of rainfall, streamflow, and groundwater recharge during the winter of 2014/spring of 2015 rainfall season.”

Table 1

Alluvial Aquifer Pumping Analysis for 2015 All Retail Water Purveyors

Prepared by GSI Water Solutions, Inc.

Pumping                       Shortfall

VWC      14,600 to 17,900     ‐6,900 to ‐3,600 ‐4,400 to ‐1,100 VWC

SCWD     1,700 to 2,700       ‐2,800 to ‐1,800 ‐2,500 to ‐1,500 SCWD

NCWD       800 to 1,200            ‐600 to ‐200 ‐500 to ‐100       NCWD

 

The UWMP indicates additional planned pumping from the alluvial aquifer can provide water supply in a drought scenario. Based on the current drought scenario and the drop in the water table forcing well closures, this is a false statement. The report should be revised to reflect the actual state of the alluvial aquifer. Not to do so puts our community at risk.

 

 [1] Slade, Richard, Hydrological Investigation Perennial Yield and Artificial Recharge Potential of the Alluvial Sediments of the Santa Clarita Valley, 1986, full report incorporated by reference
[2] See Santa Clarita Valley Water Report located on your website at http://clwa.org/docs/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/2014-Santa-Clarita-Valley-Water-Report.pdf, pages 7 an 8 (add alluvial use on table 2-1 to use on table 2-2.)
[3] “Circular 1186, “Sustainability of Ground Water Resources”, page 34, the full report is available at: http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/circ1186/html/gw_effect.html
[4] See Newhall County Water District agenda for May 12th meeting well level reports at  http://ncwd.org/OB/Agendas/Agenda_items_2016-5-12/G4.pdfSee also Santa Clarita Water Div May 9th, 2016 at http://clwa.org/docs/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/ROC-Packet-050916.pdf Well graphs begin at page 9
[5] SCV Signal, April 11, 2016, http://www.signalscv.com/section/36/article/150957/
[6]CDM Smith, Inc., 4th Quarter 2015 NPDES Monitoring Report NPDES Permit No. CAG994004, Compliance File No. CI-8727 Northern Alluvium Treatment Plant (NATP)Former Bermite Facility 22116 Soledad Canyon Road, Santa Clarita, California, February 12, 2016 Page 1This document can be accessed at: http://www.envirostor.dtsc.ca.gov/regulators/deliverable_documents/1180830240/Whittaker_NPDES_4th%20QTR%202015%20Report_21216.pdf
[7] Technical Memorandum, Evaluation of Groundwater Pumping Targets for the Alluvial Aquifer in 2015Santa Clara River Valley East Subbasin (Santa Clarita Valley, California),GSI Engineering

images.duckduckgo.com 3When the Northbridge neighborhood found out that ATT planned a huge cellular tower close to Helmer’s Elementary, they didn’t give up – they organized!
Instead of working with the neighborhood to find an alternative location, corporate giant ATT ignored the community, citing the 1996 Federal Communications Act that they and other telecommunication corporations helped muscle through Congress. Apparently, residents and neighbors aren’t supposed to be worried about their children and neighborhood, according to ATT who said in their letter to the City Council “Indeed, the appellant (i.e., the Northbridge Community) and other classroom 3opponents who raise this issue do so in the context of the Proposed Facility’s proximity to a school, a park,and residences. As explained above, the Council is specifically precluded from considering any alleged health or environmental effects of RF emissions, including where, as here, those concerns are raised through the proxy of property values and aesthetics.”

Link to City Council Agenda Item

See What the Community Has to Say!:   Packet%20for%20City%20Council%204-28-14

 

   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.

 Crime headlines sell newspapers, but unfortunately the destruction of our local oak woodlands over the past thirty years didn’t count as a crime.  Instead, our ancient oaks were destroyed with permits issued by County or City planning agencies. To many of us that believe we should preserve the beauty and benefits of our native oak heritage, it may not have been a crime, but it certainly is a travesty.

My first experience with this destruction began in the 80s with the loss of oaks for the mass grading Stevenson Ranch.

Although replacement trees were required at that time, those trees did not have to be oaks or even native trees. Today one can see the results – a lot of very flammable pines. Benefits of replanting with natives, such as forage and habitat for local birds and low water use were lost, were lost.

With the help of the Oak Conservancy, Dorothy Riley at the helm, residents marched to save oaks and protested against the lax County regulations (our City hadn’t yet been formed).

Thanks to Dorothy and her Oak Conservancy cohorts, and Mike Kotch of SCOPE, the County approved its first oak preservation ordinance in 1988, requiring a two to one replacement of any destroyed trees, establishing values for oak trees and penalties for illegal cutting.

But the ordinance still allowed permitted cutting.

Another major loss followed when the County allowed the destruction of approximately 2400 hundred oaks to expand Sunshine Canyon Landfill. This area was designated, as one of Southern California’s few significant hardwood oak forests. It was pretty much decimated by the landfill expansion. Yes, two to one replacement was required, but many of the oaks didn’t survive in planting locations that were not conducive to their growth. Of course, the oak forest ecosystem with its understory and wildlife were irreplaceably lost, as were the many heritage trees over three hundred years old that will not be enjoyed again by future generations for several hundred years.

Chain saws continued to fell our local woodlands. – Over 300 oaks lost for the Newhall’s Westridge project, around two hundred permitted for removal at the ironically named Fair Oaks Ranch (although in the end, the company cut just over 70, instead of the full 200), the “kissing” oaks that touched over Pico Canyon felled, as well as hundreds more for the various developments there.

The threatened removal of the Pico “Old Glory” oak, a massive heritage Valley Oak some 10 feet in diameter, sparked another huge protest effort to save the tree and our oak resources. John Quigley climbed into its branches in late October 2002 and remained in the tree for nearly three months as a human shield to ensure its safety. After thousands of people turned out to view the tree and tense negotiations, the tree was moved down Pico Canyon and re-planted in a park, where, thanks to deep watering by the County Parks Department, it can still be seen today.

“Old Glory” Pico Oak on the Tenth Anniversery of the Tree Sit that Saved It

It’s now the tenth anniversary of the Old Glory Oak intervention. Although this tree is doing well, that can certainly not be said for the many others that were cut in anonymity.

Or for the thousands of others whose removal has already been permitted or proposed. This includes the 158 for the Disney project in Placerita Canyon and some 1400 removals permitted by our City for the Gates King Industrial Project in the hills behind Newhall.

We were all grateful for Santa Clarita officials opposition to the Las Lomas project in the Newhall Pass. It called for removal of 2900 oaks and impacted the wildlife corridor between the Santa Susana and San Gabriel Mountains, (the same linkage that played a factor in the recently celebrated preservation of Elsmere Canyon). But the City’s approval of the Gates Industrial project within their area with similar impacts to the oak forest and wildlife corridor, made the Las Lomas opposition seem merely political.

The City did not even require 2 to 1 replacement for the hundreds of oak removals in the Gates King project.

The chain saws have not yet started for this industrial project or for Disney’s proposal in Placerita Canyon. Perhaps like the thousands of oaks saved in Elsmere Canyon, there is still time. Perhaps we will come to our senses and realize how important oaks really are for clean air and to cool our earth, and to our quality of life.

 

LOS ANGELES— A superior court judge has confirmed a previous ruling that the California Department of Fish and Game’s approvals for the enormous Newhall Ranch project in Los Angeles County violated state law in numerous, fundamental ways. The ruling deals a severe blow to the sprawling development plan, which would create a new town of more than 60,000 residents on the banks of the Santa Clara River, west of Valencia.

A coalition of environmental and Native American groups challenged the Department of Fish and Game’s (now the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s) Newhall Ranch approvalsin January 2011. This week’s comprehensive, 38-page ruling upholds the coalition’s claims that the Department failed to adequately protect endangered species, including the San Fernando Valley spineflower, unarmored threespine stickleback and southern  California steelhead; improperly disregarded the project’s contribution to climate change; failed to adequately identify and preserve in place Chumash and Tataviam cultural resources; and erroneously rejected less environmentally damaging alternative development plans.

“Government agencies have so far failed to halt this irrational and destructive plan for massive development in and around the Santa Clara River’s floodplain,” said John Buse, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Santa Clara is a gem, and it’s also one of the most endangered rivers in America. This ruling gives us hope that we can preserve Southern California’s last major free-flowing river.”

Los Angeles County approved the overall plan for Newhall Ranch in 2003, but the project required major additional permits for river development and endangered species from the Department of Fish and Game. As a result of the court ruling, these permits must be invalidated.

“It is very gratifying that this ruling will finally compel the Department of Fish and Wildlife and Newhall Land to address the project’s devastating effects on endangered species and on the Santa Clara River as they never have been addressed before, and to seriously consider alternative plans that can avoid these effects,” said Friends of the Santa Clara River Chair Ron Bottorff.

“The Department of Fish and Wildlife, charged with the protection of Southern California steelhead, must at the very least analyze all water-quality impacts of the project on migrating steelhead, including the discharges of copper that can disrupt migration and juvenile rearing even in low concentrations. Too many communities, including Chumash Native Americans, public interest organizations, watershed residents, and state and federal agencies have devoted considerable resources to the Santa Clara River steelhead restoration effort for the Department not to conduct an analysis as required by law,” said Jason Weiner, attorney for Wishtoyo Foundation and its Ventura Coastkeeper program.

Mati Waiya, Chumash ceremonial elder and executive director of Wishtoyo, said: “We feel that our voices were heard by the court and that the law protected our culture, ancestors, and resources as the legislature intended. This case provides California Natives with a seat at the table in the planning process that is needed not only to adequately inform the state about protection of our cultural resources, but to preserve our people’s culture, life ways, tradition and oral history.”

If the project moves forward, the Department will need to revisit its decision to permit development in some of the last remaining habitat for the San Fernando Valley spineflower, a plant that was believed extinct until it was rediscovered in 1999. It is known to exist at only one other site.

“Maybe now the Department will listen to its own staff and botanical experts in preparing a defensible plan to ensure the survival and recovery of the San Fernando Valley spineflower and other rare species,” said California Native Plant Society Chapter Council Chairman David Magney.

The first two phases of Newhall Ranch were approved by Los Angeles County in 2011 and 2012. These phases depend on the Department’s approvals, so they face an uncertain future after these approvals are reversed.

“This decision will give both the Department and Los Angeles County the impetus and extra time they need to make a better plan for the Santa Clara River and for our community,” said SCOPE President Lynne Plambeck.

The groups challenging the development’s approvals included the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Santa Clara River, Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment (SCOPE), Wishtoyo Foundation, Ventura Coastkeeper and California Native Plant Society”>The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization withmore than 450,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. Wishtoyo is a nonprofit, public-interest organization that protects Chumash culture, Native American culture, and the natural resources all people depend upon. Ventura Coastkeeper, a program of Wishtoyo, is dedicated to protecting the ecological integrity and water quality of Ventura County’s inland and coastal waterways.

Several years ago the Planning and Conservation League published a report entitled “Everyday Heroes Protect the Air We Breath, the Water We Drink and the Natural Areas We Prize”, in celebration of 35 years of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
The report takes a look at some of the policy changes that have occurred in our communities as a result of this venerable environmental law. For over more than 35 years now, CEQA has given concerned residents a way of making their voice heard in the planning process. Many people throughout the state stepped up to the plate and worked hard to make their community a better place to live and raise their kids using CEQA.
In a last minute deal behind closed doors State legislators once again tried to limit citizen involvement in the planning process by forcing drastic changes to CEQA without any debate or public input. The changes were proposed through a “gut and amend” process where an existing bill, often totally unrelated, is completely gutted and a new bill is inserted using the same bill number. This highly questionable practice enables special interests to push desired changes through at the last minute without scrutiny of any kind.
The changes would have restricted the public’s ability to enforce this important environmental law and protect their commentates.
Its little wonder that special interests would try to such a tactic since past polling has always indicated strong support for this popular law.
Perhaps its time to take another look at what CEQA does and how it has benefited the public and the communities in our area along the Santa Clara River.
The California Environmental Quality Act requires review of projects that will affect the environment. If the project is small and will have few impacts (i.e., the renovation of an existing building), the review is minimal.
If it is a large project next to the river that will generate a lot of traffic, air quality problems, etc. such as Newhall Ranch, Vista Canyon and the many other large projects proposed in the Santa Clarita area, CEQA requires an environmental impact report (EIR). This document is available to the public (in the local library and the City planning department) for review so that the public and the decision-makers are aware of the negative aspects.
Sometimes problems may be missed in the EIR due to unfamiliarity with the neighborhood. Also, because developers pay for their own environmental impact reports, the temptation not to disclose certain impacts may become too great. Big problems are not disclosed.
For instance, Newhall Land did not disclose the existence of the endangered Spineflower on the Newhall Ranch project and did not find the spadefoot toad on the Riverpark project until others brought it to their attention. Recently, residents have brought up issues regarding water supply and pollutants that they felt were not properly disclosed in the EIRs.
Disclosure is important because CEQA then requires that planning agencies and developers “mitigate” these impacts to the greatest extent possible. Projects that require grading will have to make sure that their contractors water down the site to reduce dust. Native plants may be required in landscaping plans to reduce water usage; new lanes or bridge widening may be required to address traffic issues. In the case of the spineflower, acreage was set aside as a reserve for this rare plant. Without proper disclosure of the impacts, such mitigation wouldn’t be required.
Who knows their neighborhoods better than the residents do? Neighbors or community groups writing comments and objections to projects have often forced the changes needed to keep their communities safe and healthy places to live.
This is not always accomplished by merely telling our elected officials that something is wrong. Often those officials were elected with campaign contributions from developers and are hesitant to stop their benefactors’ projects. The only recourse left for the community is public interest litigation to force the agency to recognize the problem.
Developers complain that public interest litigation is increasing the cost of housing and regulations to shorten the development review process should be instituted. In fact, a very small percentage of CEQA approvals are litigated because safeguards against frivolous litigation already exist. Only the most egregious violations of CEQA are brought to the Courts for the simple reason that community groups don’t have a lot of money and it is expensive to hire lawyers. A proposal must be REALLY BAD before neighborhood folks can be talked into spending their Sunday afternoons on garage sales or walking neighborhoods to try to raise the money to hire an attorney.
In many cases, the issues brought under CEQA exposed state wide problems and brought sweeping changes that benefited communities throughout the state. The individuals and neighborhood groups not only saved their communities, they helped many others as well.
So we were relieved to hear that this years last minute “gut and amend” back room deal to restrict CEQA was dropped as a result of many phone calls and protests to legislaturors by all of you. While such changes may be proposed again next year, at least they will be aired in the light of day with plenty of time for debate and public input.
In the meantime SCOPE and other community groups can continue to use CEQA to protect our neighborhoods and our watersheds.