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Military Appeals to Gov.-Elect to Intervene in Development

An admiral's letter to Schwarzenegger suggests that a new city planned for Tejon Ranch be relocated so it won't disrupt flight training.

October 23, 2003|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

Fearing that construction of a new city on Tejon Ranch would end low-level training flights from six military bases, a top Defense Department official has taken the unusual step of asking Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger to intervene in the development of the proposed 23,000-home community, and perhaps move it from the Tehachapi Mountains to the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Navy Rear Adm. J.L. Betancourt, writing on behalf of military services in California, said that development of the new city of Centennial, near Gorman, would interfere with the training of Navy, Marine and Air Force combat pilots and would likely have "severe impacts" on the nation's military readiness.

Federal regulations prohibit military flights lower than 1,000 feet over cities, while military pilots often train at elevations of just 200 feet.

"The proposed Centennial development underlies a number of military training routes crucial to maintaining highly perishable pilot skills necessary for safe execution of one of the most demanding phases of a combat mission," Betancourt said Tuesday in an e-mail to Schwarzenegger.

Betancourt requested that Schwarzenegger's statewide planning office devise a regional strategy to consider Centennial and two other projects planned on sprawling Tejon Ranch along Interstate 5 in Kern and Los Angeles counties. A new law gives that office expanded powers in resolving development disputes related to the military.

Just what Schwarzenegger will do with the request is uncertain, since he is not yet governor and is only now selecting his top advisors. Until he is sworn in, Environment Now, a Santa Monica nonprofit group, is advising the governor-elect on issues concerning Tejon Ranch.

"The transition team does have the admiral's letter, and they've briefed Arnold," said David Myerson of Environment Now. "But he has no response at this point."

The Centennial project is now before Los Angeles County planners, and preliminary community meetings on its environmental effects are set for November.

Military and urban uses are not mutually exclusive at Tejon Ranch, according to an analysis that was prepared by the military and attached to Betancourt's letter.

One option, the analysis said, would be to move Centennial -- planned for perhaps 70,000 residents and 13 million square feet of commercial space -- from the western tip of the Antelope Valley in Los Angeles County to another part of the ranch 20 miles north in Kern County.

Tejon Ranch officials, expressing surprise at the admiral's letter, said they have tried for months to meet with military officials to discuss the Centennial project. In their only meeting months ago, Edwards Air Force Base officials said they had concerns only about high-altitude flyovers, according to Bob Stine, president and chief executive of Tejon Ranch.

"My first reaction is that this is a political letter and has nothing to do with land planning," Stine said. "It's probably being induced by some environmental groups that are trying to stop projects at Tejon Ranch."

If the military has true concerns, Stine said, "and would like a seat at the planning table, we'd welcome them." But Stine said he found it curious that the admiral's letter had been sent not only to Schwarzenegger, but also to 24 state, federal and local elected officials and military commanders and four environmental groups.

"How often does the military engage environmental groups like that?" he said.

Stine said it was odd that the military would be so concerned about the three-by-five-mile Centennial site when pilots have millions of acres of publicly owned land over which they can train in California. "It's ironic that they identify a small, 12,000-acre patch that is somehow crucial to certain flight patterns."

Stine laughed off the suggestion that the project be moved from a temperate valley in Los Angeles County to the hot and humid San Joaquin Valley.

Navy officials said a meeting with Tejon developers before now would have been premature because they did not know the full scope of the problem until they completed a year of interviews with affected pilots.

"We wanted to make sure we talked with pilots, the people who do the testing, who run the programs, to make sure there was a real problem," said Randal Friedman, a civilian planner who works for the Navy in San Diego.

Tejon Ranch has been largely devoted to raising cattle since 1843. But over the last year, officials have outlined plans to build Centennial in northern Los Angeles County, dozens of warehouses at the base of the Grapevine mountain pass and a resort community near Lake Tejon, both in southern Kern County.

Together, the projects would effectively link urban Southern California with the rural Central Valley, filling parts of a 75-mile expanse between Santa Clarita and Bakersfield. Alone, the Centennial project would be the largest housing development in Los Angeles County history.

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