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The Valley

Land May Become a Preserve

Part of a canyon near Santa Clarita, formerly fated to become a dump, would be dedicated as open space pending the outcome of a lawsuit.

May 22, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Four hundred acres of canyon land once slated to become a dump may soon be donated to Los Angeles County and dedicated as an open space preserve, bringing an end to an acrimonious land-use battle that has raged in the Santa Clarita Valley for more than 15 years, officials said Wednesday.

The donation of the land in rugged Elsmere Canyon by Browning Ferris Industries Inc. is still subject to the outcome of a pending lawsuit. If finalized, it would preserve 12 natural waterfalls, Native American artifacts and more than 8,000 trees on the property just southeast of Santa Clarita.

"It shouldn't be a landfill -- it's not the place," said Bob Haueter, a field representative for Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the area and helped negotiate the deal. "This is going to ensure that this pristine, beautiful area is preserved for future generations."

The deal is subject to the resolution of claims on the 850-acre parcel by a group of former landowners who still hope to locate a landfill there. But Haueter said the recent failure of the former owners' claims in an arbitration session has all but ensured that the land will be spared from becoming a dump site.

The former owner of the property, the Landfill and Ecology Corp., sued BFI and the previous landowner, because an earlier agreement would have allowed them to share in the profits of the landfill, said Thomas Bruen, an attorney for BFI.

The arbitration panel's ruling against the plaintiffs in December must still be approved by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge. Bruen said he expects that ruling this summer. Ada Sands, an attorney for the general partners of the Landfill and Ecology Corp., said the company would appeal an unfavorable decision.

Debates over Elsmere Canyon's proposed landfill began in the late 1980s, as Los Angeles city and county officials confronted a crisis of dwindling dumping space, and raged into the 1990s, as the increasingly populous Santa Clarita Valley gained political power.

While private industry and Los Angeles city and county officials saw the dump as an out-of-the-way alternative to landfills in the Santa Monica Mountains, environmentalists and officials in Santa Clarita feared a landfill would contaminate their drinking water.

Over the years, the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Clarita tried unsuccessfully to have the land annexed into their "spheres of influence," a move that would have given them greater control over its fate. And homeowners turned out by the hundreds to voice their concern at numerous public meetings, turning the landfill into a crucial litmus test for politicians in north Los Angeles County.

In 1996, the possibility of a dump at the site was greatly diminished when U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, the former mayor of Santa Clarita, slipped a provision into a U.S. Senate bill prohibiting the use of U.S. Forest Service land for the dump. BFI officials said they needed the extra land to make the landfill project feasible.

But the property has remained on the county's master planning maps as a potential landfill site, and Santa Clarita officials have remained nervous.

On Tuesday, however, Haueter said Antonovich will introduce a motion at the Board of Supervisors meeting asking county staff to remove the landfill from the county's maps. And Greg Loughnane, a district manager for the waste company, said it would not be financially feasible to build a smaller landfill on the remaining land.

"The value of the property as a landfill, in terms of its benefit to our company, has been basically eliminated," Loughnane said.

BFI is using its remaining 450 acres to sweeten the deal it hopes to strike with Santa Clarita for the city's lucrative trash concession, which is currently out to bid, Mayor Cameron Smyth said. The loss of such potential landfill sites as Elsmere Canyon to not-in-my-backyard activism continues to be a pressing concern for waste management officials, said Don Avila, a spokesman for the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County.

A landfill crisis was averted by the passage of a state law in 1989 that required governments to divert 25% of their waste from landfills by 1995, and 50% by 2000, Avila said.

The sanitation districts have also purchased a large dump in Imperial County, and are negotiating on a second in Riverside County, that would handle Los Angeles County's projected trash needs for the next 100 years, Avila said.

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