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.

$1,000 Earth Day Prize
11th Annual Anthony Prize Honors Newhall Ranch Opponent
Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE)

The Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment today announced the winner of the 2012 Anthony Grassroots Prize, an annual Earth Day award recognizing an outstanding example of grassroots environmental stewardship.

For 25 years, the volunteers of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) have promoted, protected and preserved the environment of Northern Los Angeles County’s Santa Clarita Valley, and the quality of life for its 250,000 residents. SCOPE provides a vital forum where local issues involving the environment, ecology or quality of life can be heard and discussed; and promotes community planning and design dedicated to quality, aesthetics, environmental sensitivity and consideration of community goals and needs.

SCOPE was awarded the 2012 Anthony Prize for its inspirational ‘David vs. Goliath’ advocacy to protect the Santa Clarita Valley from the mammoth Newhall Ranch development – a proposed 60,000 person city slated to be built on the Los Angeles-Ventura County line. The 12,000 acre Newhall site would be largest single development project in California history, yet is located on one of the most pristine reaches of the Santa Clara River, Los Angeles County’s last free-flowing wild river.

The area threatened by the Newhall development is home to over 117 threatened, endangered or sensitive plant and wildlife species or communities. The project would result in filling 20 miles of on-site streams and the valleys that contain them with 208 million cubic yards of fill material taken from the hill tops –  enough soil to fill dump trucks and wrap them around the earth’s equator over 3 times. In addition, the project would channelize 5 miles of the main stem of the Santa Clara River, building homes in an area where the river has historically flowed during major storm events. For more information about SCOPE and the environmental impacts of Newhall Ranch, contact:  Lynne Plambeck, (661) 255-6899, exec@scope.org.

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.

Put-Down-that-Saltshakerby Lynne Plambeck

High salt levels in state water delivered from northern California have been a concern to many communities for some time.  The salt comes mostly from ocean water that mixes with fresh water in the Delta area and then is pumped into the aqueduct for delivery to Southern California.  The drier the weather, the more likely this phenomenon called “salt water intrusion” is to occur.  Reduced snow pack in the Sierras, now predicted to occur more often due to climate change, will increase salt-water intrusion in the Delta.

While the water is still drinkable, Read the rest of this entry »

The Los Angeles County Supervisors’ Jan 10th Motion (See L.A. Times article) to limit public comment at their meetings brought a flood of protest from local and statewide groups.

SCOPE was among them, fearing its potential impact on the Brown Act, California’s sunshine law. Below please find links to SCOPE’s comments and related articles and programs.

Last October, about 20 residents of the Santa Clarita Valley made the two-hour drive to Downtown Los Angeles to speak before the Los Angeles Board County of Supervisors regarding the first phase of the Newhall Ranch project.  Though speakers are normally allotted three minutes to comment, when the agenda item was announced, Supervisor Michael Antonovich told the residents they would  have only one minute. That’s one minute to talk about the many different issues from endangered species, air pollution and water contamination and availability. Even with speakers limiting themselves to only one subject, a minute was too short to adequately cover a single issue.

For a more complete discussion of this issue see David Luteness’ OpEd published in The Signal, “Limiting Free Speech hurts public input” .

SCOPE letter regarding the motion.

SCOPE letter to the supervisors regardinggood governance through the inclusion of public participation.”

Hear the Warren Olney Show, “Do LA County Supervisors Want to Limit Public Engagement? on KCRW.

The related Los Angeles Times article here.

The related DailyNews article here.

The complete motion by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky can be found here.

As we gather with friends and families over the holidays to enjoy the abundance and variety of food our country offers, perhaps we might want to give some thought to how that food is produced. We can make many choices that will not only please our palates, but will help our world.

Buying local is perhaps the easiest choice. Read the rest of this entry »