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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Water Firm Ordered to Review Supplies

Development: PUC vote ratifying judge's decision postpones building of thousands of new homes. The study could take up to a year.

October 20, 2000|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The state Public Utilities Commission on Thursday ordered Valencia Water Co. to conduct a detailed study of its water supplies, postponing construction of more than 4,000 new homes in the booming development area.

The five-member commission ratified a judge's decision that the water company, owned by Newhall Land & Farming Co., the area's major landowner, must prove that it has sufficient supplies to expand its service area without jeopardizing the supply and quality of water for current customers.

That judge's ruling, now backed by the PUC, was the second court victory for Ventura County opponents of proposed 21,600-home Newhall Ranch development since June. Then, a Superior Court judge temporarily blocked construction of Newhall Ranch until developers can guarantee a reliable water supply.

Thursday's PUC action is expected to delay the start of construction for six months to a year on another three developments in a hillside area north of the Santa Clarita city boundary and Valencia Town Center.

The projects, located along the San Francisquito Canyon Creek area and all recently approved by Los Angeles County, are North Valencia II and West Creek, both owned by Newhall Land, and Tesoro del Valle, owned by SunCal Cos. of Orange.

In some areas, grading is underway even though the water issue is not settled. The decision also affects a few other smaller projects, such as Mountain View, that are outside Valencia but served by the water company.

Marlee Lauffer, spokeswoman for Newhall Land, said she is not certain of the time implications of the ruling, but that the company "will start work immediately" to provide additional environmental documentation to the PUC.

Developers of the Tesoro project could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Environmentalists said they will seek a court order to block bulldozers at work on the Tesoro project, where plans call for building 1,109 homes on land formerly used to raise hogs by the family that owns Farmer John Meats.

Ventura County officials, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups are worried that extensive development in the Santa Clarita Valley will affect water supplies for the entire region. They are particularly concerned about plans by Newhall Land to build a 21,600-unit development at Castaic Junction.

The PUC ruling is not expected to immediately affect such major long-range projects as Newhall Ranch, but could delay those that are near the start of construction, said Robert DiPrimio, water company president.

He said he is "unsure as to the procedures" to be used to determine the availability of water, but expects that the commission will review environmental studies that have already been certified by city and county agencies.

The water company had sought to extend its services into new development areas. But now the construction of water lines cannot begin until further review by the commission.

"We have the water available," DiPrimio said. "If we are unable to service these areas, there are other water companies," pointing out that Valencia Water is one of four serving the region.

Newhall Land and other developers have maintained all along that water supplies are more than sufficient to support all of the development both underway and on the books--about 40,000 units surrounding the city.

Environmentalists argue that shortages are already evident, threatening the existing population and the environment.

The PUC action puts developers that continue to grade property at risk of not getting approval to build houses, said Lynne Plambeck, spokeswoman for the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment.

"For them to continue grading is economically unsound as well as ecologically unsound," she said.

The commission, at its meeting in Los Angeles, unanimously approved a written decision issued Sept. 22 by Administrative Law Judge Bertram Patrick following hearings earlier this year in San Francisco. Patrick said the company must further study the impact of nearly doubling the amount of water it plans to supply to customers over the next 20 years and, in particular, increased pumping of underground aquifers.

In June, a Superior Court judge in Kern County ordered Newhall Land to conduct further studies of the impact of water, traffic and other issues stemming from the Newhall Ranch project.

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