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Ruling a Loss for Protectors of Toad

Environmentalists' suit challenging expansion of a Santa Clarita auto mall is rejected.

May 06, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Environmental groups concerned about the fate of an endangered toad lost a legal challenge Monday to the planned expansion of a Santa Clarita auto mall.

The lawsuit was one of numerous environmental fights raging in fast-growing Santa Clarita. But because the developer, Newhall Land & Farming Co., promised to make improvements to nearby baseball and softball fields as part of the expansion, this one took on a particularly bitter tone.

Parents accused environmentalists of putting the fate of the endangered arroyo toad ahead of their children's recreational needs. The environmentalists, meanwhile, believed Newhall linked the car-lot expansion with America's pastime in an attempt to manipulate public opinion.

Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said Monday that Newhall's efforts smacked of "small-town McCarthyism efforts." He also said his group was considering an appeal of the decision by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs.

Newhall has noted that it is paying for the improvements to the ball fields, and will donate the fields to the William S. Hart Boys and Girls Baseball/Softball League when work is completed.

Galvin's group and the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment filed the suit against the city of Santa Clarita in August, contending that it should have required a full environmental review for the project. The suit asserted that an expanded auto mall would harm air and water quality, and that new artificial banks along the Santa Clara River would damage the toad's habitat.

Santa Clarita spokeswoman Gail Ortiz said Monday she welcomed the ruling. The expansion, which could accommodate up to four new dealerships, will bring more than $1 million in yearly sales tax revenue to the city, she said.

The news also pleased Hart League President Ken Underwood, who said the improvements will stop the flooding of the ball diamonds.

"We certainly are interested in protecting the environment," he said. "But we also need to protect those fields."

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