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Santa Clarita, L.A. County Set Sights on Making Development Boundaries Invisible

Growth: Reflecting a statewide trend, officials are working together to create a common plan to unify standards and provide continuity in land use.

April 29, 2001|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Sand Canyon, the city of Santa Clarita bans curbs, sidewalks and street lights, to better preserve the rural equestrian atmosphere.

But at the border, concrete gutters appear, discouraging horses but pleasing planners for Los Angeles County.

In the Santa Clarita Valley, the tip-off of the city-county boundary is often the abrupt disappearance of a bike lane or equestrian trail. Bulldozers carve cliffs into hillsides on one side of a freeway, while the other is smoothly graded.

Now, for the first time since Santa Clarita left Los Angeles County and incorporated in 1987, the city and county are working together toward a common plan for development: making boundaries invisible.

A single general plan would unify development standards and provide continuity in land use and densities, proponents say.

Such intergovernmental discussions are becoming increasingly common in California as formerly rural cities and counties struggle for a sense of control over an onslaught of development. Similar joint planning is under way in Sonoma and San Luis Obispo counties over disparities in housing and safety issues.

"All too often, jurisdictions don't consider their actions across the board, which can have an effect on an adjoining city," said Paul Crawford, a land-use planning consultant for city and county governments. Joint planning ventures are "a productive and effective emerging trend in planning throughout the state."

Among models nationally are the "Research Triangle Region" of North Carolina and a million-dollar "Envision Utah" campaign, designed to guide development in a state that is growing at more than twice the national average, particularly in the greater Wasatch area, officials said.

The most recent application in Los Angeles County was adoption of the Santa Monica Mountains North Area Plan, hammered out in 1999 after six years of discussions among Calabasas, Hidden Hills, Agoura Hills and Westlake Village and other local agencies. The county reduced the projected build-out in unincorporated areas by about one-third, said Lee Stark, veteran county regional planner.

The issue is acute in booming Santa Clarita, where the population is 151,088, up from 110,642 in 1990. The valleywide population is projected to grow to 410,000 by 2015, and Santa Clarita is the traditional gateway to the high desert region of northern Los Angeles County.

"We've been looking for some broader types of planning to happen," said Dowell Myers, a professor of planning at USC, who called the Santa Clarita-Los Angeles County talks "a step in the right direction" to closing the gap between housing development and demand.

"Our housing situation is totally stymied by the piecemeal process of decision-making, which has slowed the whole darn thing down excessively," Myers said.

Jeff Lambert, Santa Clarita planning director, called the talks "an opportunity for the city and the county and everyone else in this valley to put a plan in place that we can live by over the next 20 years."

City and county officials said the need for such a plan became apparent last year as development in Santa Clarita far outpaced the rest of the county, taxing roads, storm-drainage channels, sewers, water systems and schools.

"There are some pretty touchy issues and all sorts of land mines out there," said Andy Malakates, head of research for county planning. "We need to compare the various development standards [of the county] and those of the city to see where the differences are . . . and to bring the county and city standards as closely together as possible."

The Santa Clarita plan is using a process popular among planners across the country, said Conni Pallini, specialist with the consultants guiding the project, EIP Associates of Los Angeles.

"We are asking, 'If you can dream up an ideal Santa Clarita Valley, what would it look like?' " said Lambert, the city's planner. "We're trying not to deal, just yet anyway, with the nitty-gritty detail of a general plan. Rather, we want to develop a vision, or multiple visions, that are all tied together into one big plan."

It is expected to take more than two years to complete and cost more than $100,000, to be shared by the city and county.

During preliminary exercises, area students were asked to write "vision postcards," describing Santa Clarita in 2020.

One student predicted the current four high schools would increase to seven campuses by 2020, "fast-tracked to their full capacity" and prompting a "growth cap." The writer also envisioned Valencia's landscaping spreading throughout the valley and a revival of the oak tree population. "The first priority is to end development and build more schools," the student added.

More than 600 people have participated in preliminary surveys for the vision program, with the majority saying they are most concerned about loss of open space, natural ridgelines and waterways, as well as the rate of development, traffic congestion and overcrowded schools.

A series of public meetings are planned to give residents an opportunity to voice their opinions, beginning Monday in Santa Clarita. Others are scheduled in Newhall, Canyon Country and Castaic. The workshops are designed to gather diversified viewpoints from throughout the region to serve as a basis for a unified development scheme, such as areas set aside for high- or low-density housing.

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