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Antonovich to Postpone Supervisors' Decision on Newhall Ranch

Planning: Another legal tangle over the water supply for the massive development triggers another delay. Opponents applaud the board member's action.

January 18, 2002|SUE FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The biggest development in Los Angeles County history--already stalled for 20 months by a judge who questioned its water supply projections--has been swept off course again by another legal tussle over water.

Newhall Ranch, a proposed 21,600-home subdivision in the fast-growing Santa Clarita Valley, was scheduled for action next week by the county Board of Supervisors.

But Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the area, said Thursday he will ask to delay the board decision for at least three months until courts resolve water rights in a valley whose population is expected to at least double during the next two decades.

"We need to ensure that there is sufficient water for the residents of the Santa Clarita Valley before any project is approved," Antonovich said in a brief statement.

Opponents of Newhall Ranch said they were pleased by his decision. Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long applauded his "leadership and due diligence."

"They should take another look at it," she said, adding that Ventura County still disputes Newhall's latest analysis of water supplies.

The delay underscores California's growing recognition of the need to tie suburban growth to water availability. Newhall Ranch has played a key role in the evolving debate as it reverberated from the farms of Kern County to the corridors of Sacramento.

Antonovich was reacting to a court decision last week that could jeopardize water supplies for the Castaic Lake Water Agency, a wholesaler that serves the Santa Clarita Valley.

At issue are rights to 41,000 acre-feet of water a year from the Kern County Water Agency to Castaic.

Antonovich decided that because that source of the Newhall Ranch water has been thrown in doubt, the supervisors should delay action on the environmental impact report for the development.

Even though Newhall Land & Farming Co. proposes to use only a small portion of that water for its Newhall Ranch development, about 1,600 acre-feet annually, Los Angeles County officials said Thursday they want to make sure the Castaic agency's rights are clear.

"The status of water in the Santa Clarita Valley is unclear," Antonovich deputy Conal McNamara said. "The board is not in a position to make any kind of a decision [on Newhall Ranch]."

Los Angeles County supervisors unanimously approved Newhall Ranch in late 1998, over the objections of Ventura County and several environmental groups, which challenged the action in court.

In May 2000, Kern County Superior Court Judge Roger D. Randall blocked construction of the 12,000-acre development on the banks of the Santa Clara River until Newhall Land could prove it had enough water to supply the new community.

Marlee Lauffer, a spokeswoman for Newhall Land, said Thursday that the developer has since conducted more than 30 studies and cut deals to buy and store enough water to meet nearly twice the expected demand of 70,000 residents.

The water wars and other environmental challenges to Newhall Ranch have knocked the project years off schedule.

Construction, once scheduled to start in late 2000, may now be delayed beyond 2004, Lauffer said.

Lauffer said the most recent court decision "will have minimal, if any, effect on Newhall Ranch's water supply." The suburb is expected to need 17,600 acre-feet per year, less than 10% of which would come from the Castaic Lake transfer.

The Castaic Lake Water Agency now needs 68,000 acre-feet yearly to serve its customers, spokeswoman Mary Lou Cotton said.

About 36,000 acre-feet comes from State Water Project entitlements, and the rest is obtained from local ground water. One acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons, enough to supply two families for a year.

Altogether, the agency has rights to 95,200 acre-feet annually from the state, including the Kern County transfer, Cotton said.

But critics, noting that the state often cannot deliver the full amount promised, say much of the supply consists of "paper water" rather than the wet kind.

"I'm very happy that they are taking this court decision seriously," said Lynne Plambeck, president of the citizens group Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment.

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