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L.A.'s OK of Newhall Plan Spurs Local Anger

Development: Water experts, politicians and environmentalists support area leaders' vow to fight the massive housing project in court.


Outraged over Los Angeles County's approval Tuesday of the immense Newhall Ranch project, Ventura County environmentalists, politicians and water experts overwhelmingly supported the county's promise to fight the development in court.

Along with water concerns, opponents say the project would cause air pollution, increase traffic, harm endangered species and effectively destroy the quality of life for residents of Santa Clara Valley.

"Ventura County is entirely within its rights to sue," said William Fulton, a statewide planning expert who has not taken a stance on the issue.

In fact, the county has no choice if it wants to prevent 21,000 homes from being developed just east of the Ventura County border, he said.

"They are going to have to go through litigation, because there is not an administrative mechanism to allow two counties to resolve land-use disputes," said Fulton, a Ventura resident, who is editor of the California Planning and Development Report.

Fillmore Mayor Don Gunderson, who attended Tuesday's meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, said Newhall Ranch lacks an adequate plan for water runoff. The development, he said, would bring a sea of cement that would block rain from being absorbed into the ground. During heavy rains this could cause a flood in Fillmore, situated 14 miles east of of the project site, he said.

Gunderson added that development would increase traffic on California 126 through his town by more than 30%, or about 7,000 additional cars a day. At full build out, Newhall Ranch would have a population to rival Camarillo.

Gunderson and others voiced concern that Newhall Land & Farming Co. has not committed to build any affordable housing until half of the project's homes have been approved.

"One, that's against the law," said Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long, who also spoke in Los Angeles. "And two, it doesn't address the need that will be there in proportion to the minimum-wage jobs the project will create. . . . I just think that's morally wrong."

Gunderson said he worries many of the people who would fill those low-paying jobs may flock to Fillmore.

"We've met our requirements for housing the poor," Gunderson said. "We've done it already and we're not going to do it anymore."

Poverty law attorney Eileen McCarthy of the Oxnard office of California Rural Legal Assistance, which provides legal help to farm workers, voiced additional concerns on the project's lack of affordable housing.

She fears low-income employees, such as gardeners, waitresses or clerks, will be forced to commute to work, adding to traffic and air-quality problems.

McCarthy also argued there was no discussion in the Newhall Ranch environmental documents about the conversion of more than 500 acres of agricultural land and the subsequent loss of farm worker jobs.

Other local leaders and residents criticized the Los Angeles supervisors for approving the project without identifying a water source for the thousands of new homes. The project also calls for seven schools, a 200-acre business park and a golf course.

"We'll definitely stand side by side in the lawsuit with the county if the water concerns aren't resolved," said Fredrick J. Gientke, general manager of Ventura County's United Water Conservation District. "We'd participate and provide our scientific help. But we're definitely hoping this is resolved amicably."

Concerns about the project's ground water usage stem from Ventura County being downstream from Newhall Ranch. If too much ground water is tapped in Newhall Ranch, it might never make it downstream to Fillmore, Santa Paula and Piru, where ranchers depend on it for irrigation.

Ventura County supervisors Long and John Flynn blasted the project as a potential drain on water resources.

"The bottom line is that their analysis of water use is inadequate," Long said after the hearing. "Not that it's inaccurate; they didn't even do it."

Ventura County officials asked their Los Angeles counterparts to either redistribute the project's environmental report or have the developer create a supplemental report specifically to address water issues.

While the Los Angeles supervisors closed the project's public hearing process at the Tuesday meeting, final approval might not come until spring, Long said. If Ventura County's water concerns are not resolved, Long said her board will have no choice but to sue.

"We're prepared to fight," Long said. "If they pull [ground water] down to a point that it doesn't leave their basin, it costs us water. Period."

Concerned over the dearth of water, Flynn called the decision to approve the project irresponsible.

"They really don't have any idea where the water is going to come from," Flynn said. "It's a textbook example of how not to plan."

Ron Bottorff, president of the 100-member Friends of the Santa Clara River, believes the project, which would surround part of the river, would destroy endangered species and other wildlife that live in a five-mile stretch of riverbank woodlands in Los Angeles County.

The buffer zone between the project and the riverbank is less than 100 feet in some spots, which means cats and dogs, off-road vehicles and equestrians could damage habitats. The river also runs through Ventura County.

The group will decide by year's end whether to file a separate lawsuit against the company and Los Angeles County. Litigation wouldn't be an attempt to stop the project--Bottorff said that is futile--but rather a way to have the company agree to more concessions.

Times staff writers Kate Folmar and Fred Alvarez contributed to this report. Johnson and Wolcott are Times Community News reporters.


* AHMANSON RANCH: Ventura County moves forward on housing plan. B5

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