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Oaks Stand in Path of Industrial Park

Backers say the Santa Clarita project would create up to 7,000 jobs close to home.

May 26, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

The Santa Clarita City Council will consider plans Tuesday for an industrial park that could eventually provide 7,000 jobs and take untold commuters off the clogged freeways heading south to Los Angeles.

But building it would mean cutting down 1,400 oak trees -- in a valley where a tree-sitting protester captured imaginations with his efforts to save just one ancient oak a few miles away.

Since the council first considered the Needham Ranch project in November, local environmentalists used the popular escapades of tree-sitter John Quigley -- who was evicted from a towering oak in January after living in it for 71 days -- to rally Santa Clarita residents against the proposed industrial park. The Needham Ranch project originally called for the removal of 1,700 trees.

But the council asked the developer to scale back the proposal after residents decried the loss of so many trees. Quigley's protest prompted impassioned moms to attend public meetings, where they showed off their kids' drawings of trees and pointed to the city seal, which features a big oak tree.

The proposal under consideration Tuesday calls for the removal of 1,400 oak trees, half of which are fire-damaged or dead, city Planning Director Jeff Lambert said. The city estimates there are about 11,000 trees on the 550-acre site.

To help preserve a wildlife corridor, 282 acres of open space would be set aside if the proposal passes, developer Mark Gates said.

Gates said 4,000 young oaks being grown in two nurseries on the site eventually will be planted there. He said the project also could give a boost to downtown Newhall, an old commercial district that has been overtaken by newer, sleeker retail areas in the city.

Councilwoman Marsha McLean said the changes to Needham Ranch show the city listened to its constituents.

"It's a much better project than it was," McLean said. "Every project is going to have an impact, but I firmly believe you can have a good project that protects the environment."

While heartened by their newfound influence, some local environmentalists continue to oppose the project. "It still sits in the middle of a wildlife corridor," said Teresa Savaikie, a member of the group Friends of the Santa Clara River. "And it still takes out far too many oak trees."

The debate underscores the problems faced by officials in this fast-growing swath of north Los Angeles County as they attempt to balance environmental concerns with growth and development. One of the city's key environmental, social and economic goals is the creation of more jobs closer to home: 55% to 60% of the city's full-time workers commute to their jobs out of town, Lambert said.

Although known for its pristine shopping malls and picturesque neighborhoods, Santa Clarita had Southern California's worst air pollution in 2002, with at least 32 days of unhealthful ozone, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. And the commute south into the San Fernando Valley is a frustrating fact of life for many owners of those suburban dream homes.

The city envisions that Needham Ranch will attract light industry, including biomedical and technology firms.

"We're trying to give people who live out here more options for working out here," said Vince Bertoni, city planning manager.

Public comment on Needham Ranch will be taken at Tuesday's meeting, which begins at 6 p.m. in City Hall. The council is scheduled to vote on the project June 24.

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