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Endangered Toads Won't Halt Projects

Environment: Federal agencies say recent sightings shouldn't change development plans along the Santa Clara River.

May 16, 2001|ANNETTE KONDO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The discovery of four endangered toads will have no immediate effect on construction or development projects along the Santa Clara River and its tributaries, federal officials said Tuesday.

The new finds, plus disclosure of a little-known 1994 sighting, has triggered a review of Newhall Land & Farming Co.'s 20-year permit for construction in the area.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the arroyo southwestern toad sightings do not legally require the agency to add the river to a federally designated critical habitat for the toad that was approved in January, or to block plans for development.

All of the toad sightings were in river areas that were originally proposed for the habitat. Newhall Land had successfully lobbied Fish and Wildlife to remove those 17,300 acres--including land where the toad was found--arguing that its river management plan satisfied environmental concerns.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issued a 20-year permit for Newhall Land to build and alter river and riverbank areas, also said it does not foresee work stoppages.

Newhall Land "is not impacting any potential arroyo toad habitat within corps jurisdiction," said Mark Durham, acting chief of the Army Corps regulatory program. "We have not suspended the permit."

Environmentalists said they were alarmed by the positions taken by both federal agencies.

The corps permit allows the developer to alter the river, its tributaries and adjacent land in a 1,200-acre project area that includes the main stem of the Santa Clara River and its south fork, the San Francisquito Creek and the mouth of Bouquet Creek.

"The permit should be suspended and reopened for further analysis," said Peter Galvin, a conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has sued Newhall Land over the endangered species. "And all projects under the [Newhall Land river plan] should halt, or cease while that reanalysis occurs."

The corps permit is crucial to Newhall Land's ongoing development plans in the Santa Clarita Valley, said company spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer.

"A large part of our holdings are along the river, and a large majority of projects require the [permit]," Lauffer said.

Two such projects are the 2,500-home West Creek and the 1,800-home North Valencia II developments. Construction has not started on either project and both are the subjects of lawsuits by local environmentalists.

The corps permit allows Newhall to modify banks of the river and its tributaries, remove habitat for bridges or to stabilize the riverbank with boulders, and install utility lines and storm drains for future residential, commercial and industrial projects.

Environmentalists have battled Newhall Land for years in their bid to protect the 100-mile long Santa Clara River, the longest free-flowing river left in Southern California.

"The Santa Clara River is under siege," Galvin said. "There are more than 100,000 [housing] units permitted by the Army Corps of Engineers."

With the discovery of the endangered toad--a small, buff-colored amphibian with a unique trilling call-- environmentalists said the added protections required by federal law to preserve its habitat can also protect the river.

The toads were sighted last month by a biologist hired by Friends of the Santa Clara River, an environmental group which promptly filed a lawsuit seeking to halt construction and revoke the corps permit.

The 1994 sighting was by a biologist who formerly worked for the state Fish and Game agency, Louis Courtois. He reported finding the toad just east of McBean Parkway while consulting for an oil company after an oil spill. That report has been listed in the state Department of Fish and Game's Natural Diversity Data Base, which tracks endangered and threatened species. Neither the corps permit nor Newhall Land's Natural Rivers Management Plan refers to the report.

Caltrans, which is about to break ground on a new Santa Clara River bridge for the Golden State Freeway, also did not reference the 1994 sighting in its environmental report, which stated "the species is not expected on site."

Ron Kosinski, Caltrans deputy district director for environmental planning, said his agency may conduct its own survey but it will also rely on the Fish and Wildlife service to assess the impact of the toad discovery.

Durham said that at times new information requires the preparation of a supplemental environmental report, but "in this case it is doubtful. I think it can be taken care of through a consultation [with the Fish and Wildlife Service]."

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