The zoning changes necessary to build the mammoth Newhall Ranch development in the Santa Clarita Valley won unanimous approval from the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission on Wednesday.
The surprisingly cohesive vote caps 14 months of rancorous public hearings on the project, which when complete will cover 19 square miles and house 70,000 people between the Golden State Freeway and the Ventura County border.
"I was expecting some dissent," said a disappointed Barbara Wampole, vice chairman of Friends of the Santa Clara River and an opponent of the plan. "We had hoped there would be enough debate to at least delay the vote."
But Marlee Lauffer, spokeswoman for Newhall Land & Farming Co., said the company is delighted with Wednesday's decision. "We think the project has tremendous public benefit," Lauffer said.
The decision, which must now be approved by the county Board of Supervisors, further strained relations between Los Angeles County and its neighbor to the north, with two key Ventura County supervisors publicly complaining that their concerns about the project were ignored.
On Wednesday, Ventura Supervisors John K. Flynn and Kathy Long, along with about a dozen activists from both counties, were not allowed to address the commission until after the vote was taken. A mistake in the agenda had wrongly advertised the session as a public hearing, and planning commissioners refused to reopen the proceedings to allow more input.
"I got up at 6 o'clock this morning," complained Flynn, who chairs the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. "I assumed that this was a public hearing and that we would have a chance to speak."
"I want us to be good neighbors, but frankly I don't think that has occurred in this matter," Long complained after the vote.
By late Wednesday, the Ventura County officials were so angry that they drew up paperwork to appeal key portions of the plan. They contend that a 7,000-acre piece of property owned by Newhall Land, which extends into Ventura County, has never been legally separated from the parcel to be developed into Newhall Ranch. That, according to Long, means that Ventura County should have input into zoning and other issues that affect the land within its borders.
The Ventura County appeal, along with the proposal that was approved Wednesday, known as a specific plan, will go before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors next spring.
It is certain to face hefty political opposition from Ventura, along with environmentalists, nearby municipalities and school districts.
"It's certainly not going to be a slam dunk," said Dave Vannatta, planning deputy for Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the area. "Any project with 25,000 homes is going to raise an awful lot of issues."
Antonovich said he remains concerned about the impacts of the project on traffic, the area's water supply and nearby schools. Grading for the project, which extends into the Santa Susana Mountains, should not be excessive, Antonovich said.
Here are some key elements of the plan:
* 25,218 dwelling units to house 70,000 residents on 12,000 acres would be permitted under the zone changes. Only 2,070 homes are permitted now.
* Construction of a water reclamation plant.
* About half of the acreage devoted to open space, including trails along the Santa Clara River.
* Flood control berms to be set back 1,000 to 3,000 feet from the river, to allow it to retain its natural path.
The Planning Commission on Wednesday modified, albeit modestly, the plan that was introduced last year. The number of dwelling units has been reduced by 867.
Under pressure from individual planning commissioners, the developer moved 15 lots away from one mountain area. The number of homes planned along the river was also reduced, in favor of a greenbelt and hiking trail.
Overall, residential land use was cut by 43 acres, although commercial and mixed-use acreage increased by nine acres.
"Some areas will actually be enhanced [environmentally], because farming will be removed, grazing will be removed and areas will be able to be returned to a more natural state," said Lee Stark, the L.A. County planner who has been working on the project. "Along the river, there are places that would be allowed to go back to river riparian vegetation."
The project is breathtaking in its scope, and in the volume of planning work that it has generated.
Never before has the county processed such a large single application. And very rarely has an entire region's specific plan been based on the work and property of a single developer.
"It was an opportunity to master plan 19 square miles," said Stark. "So you could be sure of preserving all the important open space areas and avoid hazards when laying out areas for development."
It was unusual, Stark said, because development usually takes place piecemeal, so it is more difficult to draft a plan for a community that takes in the big picture.
Staff writer Sharon Bernstein wrote this story with contributions from correspondent Dade Hayes.