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Pitch for an Auto Mall Puts a Toad in the Line of Fire

Santa Clarita: Developer to donate ball fields. But environmentalists say amphibian is threatened.

July 08, 2002|RICHARD FAUSSET | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Santa Clarita, a city that many residents think of as a 21st century Mayberry, a group of environmentalists is risking being branded anti-baseball.

The group, Friends of the Santa Clara River, opposes Newhall Land & Farming Co.'s plan for an auto mall that includes improvements to nearby youth baseball and softball fields.

The activists say the project, which is proposed for a site near the river at Valencia Boulevard and Cinema Drive, would harm the endangered arroyo toad, a 3-inch amphibian found in parts of the river.

Barriers to help control flooding would threaten the sandy habitats where the toads breed, they say.

The group has challenged the Santa Clarita Planning Commission's approval of the project and hopes that the City Council, which is expected to vote on the project at 5:30 p.m. today, will oppose it.

All 100 board members of William S. Hart Boys and Girls Baseball/Softball League, along with their uniformed children, plan to pack City Hall to root for the auto mall. The league is a 48-year-old local institution that yearly suits up 3,000 players, ages 6 to 18.

Tracy Murphy, whose son plays in the league, said she was exasperated by the environmentalists' stand.

"Great," she said. "We'll have safe frogs, but [lousy] things for our kids."

A former City Council candidate has warned that parents are ready to countersue the environmentalists if they pursue their complaints in court.

And a local columnist whose child plays in the league has jokingly written that the baseball fans "have access to bats, and many know how to use them."

"Now it's like, mom and apple pie against those crazy environmentalists," lamented Lynne Plambeck, a member of Friends of the Santa Clara River.

The controversy illustrates the battle for the hearts and minds of Santa Clarita residents as the booming commuter suburb struggles with the pace of growth.

Are local environmentalists out of touch with the mainstream? Or is Newhall Land--which has built thousands of homes in Santa Clarita and plans to build the 21,000-home Newhall Ranch development nearby--a master manipulator of public opinion, one that is not above tying the national pastime to a big development to help it win approval?

Hart league President Dave Scripture believes the developer is being neighborly in offering the upgrades, noting that the company has leased the fields to the league for $1 a year for decades. If the auto mall project is approved, Newhall says it will donate the fields to the league.

The company also pledges to let the league use the car lot's new sewer line, introduce a new traffic light and install the flood-control barriers, which act as artificial riverbanks.

Peter Galvin, California director of the nonprofit environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, believes Newhall Land has packaged the car lot project with the baseball field extras to sway public opinion.

"What we have [in Santa Clarita] is a kind of company-town mentality," he said. "Anyone who speaks up to protect the wildlife and the river is essentially branded un-American."

Galvin and Friends of the Santa Clara River also are concerned that the artificial banks are part of a push to transform the 84-mile, largely untamed waterway into something more like the concrete-hemmed Los Angeles River.

Though the developer will bury the banks to blend in with the natural environment, activists say they will still upset the arroyo toad's habitat.

"Toads just cannot burrow into the soil-cement mix they're going to use," said Teresa Savaikie, a member of Friends of the Santa Clara River.

In addition, activists suspect the soil that would be imported for the project may contain ammonium perchlorate, a toxic leftover from a local munitions plant.

Newhall spokeswoman Marlee Laufer maintains that the soil is clean, the proper permits will be obtained and that the toad doesn't live in that part of the river.

Scripture adds that the improvements, especially the artificial riverbanks, will make a big difference for the league and its young players.

For most of the year, the stretch of the Santa Clara that flows past the fields is a trickling creek at best. But when big storms come, flood waters gush west from the San Gabriel Mountains, and currently, there is nothing to stop them.

During the 1998 season, storm water washed out four of the league's 10 ball fields, doing thousands of dollars in damage, Scripture said.

The auto mall would accommodate four dealerships and add an estimated $1.1 million a year to the $4.4 million the city receives from auto sales taxes, city officials said.

Councilwoman Laurene Weste said recently that she had not decided which way she would vote but that she would look for a compromise.

Plambeck said a compromise is all her group wants, as long as it includes getting rid of the barriers.

Rudi Bendig, who was scoring his son's game on a recent afternoon, said he was all for the project. "If all these kids weren't playing baseball, they'd probably be running along the riverbank squashing toads anyway."

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