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Company Town May Be Lost If Newhall Is Sold

Santa Clarita Valley would have to learn to take care of itself after years of stewardship.

August 04, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Santa Clarita Valley residents have joked for years about living in a company town.

Today, they are wondering what will happen now that the company -- Newhall Land & Farming Co. -- is being sold to out-of-towners.

The 120-year-old agricultural and development firm has long been Santa Clarita's key power player, credited with transforming the area from orchards and ranchland into one of California's fastest-growing suburbs.

When Florida-based Lennar Corp. and a corporate partner announced last month their plan to acquire Newhall Land for $990 million, the local reaction was complicated.

Over the decades, Newhall Land's aggressive development has earned it both admiration and anger from residents. Yet even some detractors have taken comfort in the fact that the Santa Clarita-based company was the home team -- if only because they knew its top decision-makers would be living in the neighborhoods they built.

Some worry that if the acquisition deal goes through, the area's most important development issues could be decided in Miami, despite Newhall's assurances that little would change.

Others wonder if they would see a gradual disintegration of the ties between the community and Newhall Land. It was the company's meticulous planning that established Santa Clarita's safe, squeaky-clean feel, one that many locals proudly contrast with the gritty Los Angeles Basin.

The company, whose roots in the Santa Clarita Valley extend back to the 19th century, has been one of the area's most generous supporters of local charities and perhaps its most potent catalyst of social and commercial infrastructure projects.

"Newhall Land has always bled Santa Clarita blood," said historian John Boston, a columnist for the Signal, the local newspaper. "They've helped provide a sense of community. And I think with it being operated by an out-of-state company ... you could lose that sense of community."

But environmentalists are concerned about the deal's effect on Newhall Land's remaining projects, including the 20,885-home Newhall Ranch subdivision proposed for the valley's northwest corner.

Although Los Angeles County supervisors have granted preliminary approval to the project's general outline, many details have yet to be worked out. And some activists worry that Newhall Land's new bosses could backtrack on promises the developer made with the county.

Local activists are familiar with Lennar through its Stevenson Ranch development, just west of town. But Newhall Land is a known quantity.

"We do know quite a bit about the way Newhall Land operates: They're the company that owns the town," said Barbara Wampole, member of the group Friends of the Santa Clara River. "Now we'll have to learn as much as we can about the way [Lennar] operates."

Activist Lynne Plambeck is also concerned that the buck will no longer stop locally at Newhall Land. As president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment, Plambeck has been one of Newhall Land's fiercest critics. She has argued forcefully that the company has taxed the valley's natural resources with overbuilding.

But she recalls that during one particularly impassioned battle with the company, she and Newhall Land's then-chief executive talked over their differences during a morning jog. He happened to be her neighbor.

With a bigger corporation in charge -- Lennar is the nation's third-largest home builder -- those kinds of encounters seem less likely, said activist Teresa Savaikie. "It's going to be an even bigger challenge to protect the quality of life out here."

Former Santa Clarita Mayor Jan Heidt, on the other hand, said she believes Newhall Land has been such an irresponsible environmental steward that the sale doesn't matter.

"To me, there's no difference at all," Heidt said. "After all these years, [Newhall Land] must be tired of lying about how great everything was going to be. But you take it in its entirety, and you know what? Santa Clarita is a mess. It's a San Fernando Valley in waiting."

Marlee Lauffer, vice president of Newhall Land, is accustomed to the intense passions her company can stir but said that the public should not be too concerned about the proposed sale.

Lennar has promised to retain all of Newhall Land's employees, who will in turn keep their standing commitments to the Santa Clarita Valley, she said.

"We all get to keep doing what we've been doing, which is implementing this vision," she said. "We still live, work and play -- as corny as that sounds -- in the community we create."

In essence, nothing much will change, because Lennar is equally committed to responsible development, Lauffer said.

Still, if the sale goes through, Newhall Land would change dramatically, as it did in 1969, when the family-owned company began trading publicly on the New York Stock Exchange.

The company's relationship with the arid Santa Clarita Valley began in 1875, when former '49er and San Francisco auctioneer Henry Mayo Newhall bought more than 40,000 acres of ranchland.

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