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Supervisors OK Newhall Ranch

The 20,885-home project, which still faces one court challenge on environmental grounds, would be the largest in L.A. County history.

May 28, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

With demand for housing driving Southern California real estate prices to record highs, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the largest residential development in county history Tuesday, one that has stoked years of debate over suburban growth in a region that is expected to add 6 million people within 30 years.

The Newhall Ranch project -- if it clears the remaining barriers in its way -- would bring 20,885 new homes to what is now a picturesque, rural river valley 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

For nearly a decade, the project has been under debate, hailed by its supporters as a model planned community, criticized by foes as the latest example of Southern California sprawl.

The debate continued Tuesday as supervisors grappled with how to balance the inevitable effects of such a massive project -- on water supplies, endangered species and clogged freeways -- against the need for housing in a region which, by some estimates, needs 25,000 additional homes each year to keep up with population growth.

"Here you have a comprehensive vision that brings into balance the jobs demand and the housing demand of the next 20 years," said David Smith, an attorney for the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California. "It takes courage to bring this forward."

Countered Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who cast the only vote against the project: "We are on a course that is demonstrably wrong."

With the Newhall Ranch project now past a crucial hurdle, that future course seems likely to steadily bring more development to northern Los Angeles County.

Planning expert William Fulton said Tuesday's vote may help ease the way for future large projects in the northern part of the county, which will gain another 1 million residents in the next three decades, according to estimates by the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

"It sends a signal ... to go full speed ahead," said Fulton, president of the Solimar Research group in Ventura. "And it also means it will eventually be more of a hassle to drive over the Grapevine.

"The whole area north of Santa Clarita is going to be another crowded commuter freeway, as opposed to another place to step on the gas when you go visit your aunt up in the Bay Area," he said.

Yaroslavsky noted that supervisors eventually must decide on an even larger development farther north: the 23,000-home Centennial development, near the top of the wind-swept Grapevine between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. Developers for that project filed their preliminary planning documents with the county in February.

Yaroslavsky urged his colleagues to confront the issue of suburban sprawl, which he called "one of the biggest, if not the biggest, environmental issues we face as a region."

But Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents most of the northern part of Los Angeles County, praised the Newhall Ranch development for addressing the region's pressing housing crunch.

Opponents of developments such as Newhall Ranch say they would prefer to see more homes built where communities already exist, Antonovich said. But, he suggested, that would be difficult to do in Southern California.

"How do you build out a Brentwood or Beverly Hills ... or San Marino or Pasadena?" he asked.

Antonovich, a longtime supporter of Newhall Ranch, said that elements of the massive project would make it relatively self-contained, reducing the need for trips outside its 12,000 acres. The development eventually could be home to 70,000 people, and its plans already include seven schools, a library, 6,000 acres of open space and parks, and commercial buildings that could create 19,000 jobs.

The supervisors' approval came amid lingering dissent from environmental groups that fear the development's effects on open space, endangered wildlife and the sensitive waterway it straddles, the Santa Clara River.

For the last nine years, the Newhall Ranch project, proposed by the Newhall Land & Farming Co., has lumbered through the county planning process, surviving demands for revisions, a criminal investigation into the alleged destruction of an endangered plant, and a lawsuit brought by public interest groups and Ventura County, which shares a border with the development and, some say, has taken a more cautious approach to growth.

The plaintiffs in the civil case forced Newhall Ranch to rewrite aspects of its environmental reports, including claims that it had enough water for the project, and it was those decisions that supervisors formally approved Tuesday.

The developer and Los Angeles County still must convince a Kern County judge that their new plans are environmentally sound.

On Tuesday, a small group of protesters decried the project's effects on endangered species believed to live in and around the river, such as the Southwestern arroyo toad and the San Fernando Valley spineflower.

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