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Newhall Project Gets OK to Build

A judge rules that concerns raised by environmental groups have been addressed.

October 28, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

After years of environmental controversy and legal battles, a Kern County judge cleared the way for the 20,885-home Newhall Ranch, one of the largest development proposals in Los Angeles County history.

In a six-page ruling Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Roger D. Randall found that environmental groups' remaining concerns about the Santa Clarita Valley project -- including its effects on endangered species and the nearby Santa Clara River -- had either been addressed in the development's planning documents or had been raised too late in the legal process.

Marlee Lauffer, a spokeswoman for developer Newhall Land and Farming Co., said construction could begin in late 2006 -- eight years after the company had originally hoped.

"This has been a very lengthy process," she said. "But we think the Newhall Ranch specific plan will be the blueprint for a great community that will meet Los Angeles County's housing needs ... and provide major open space."

The size of the project -- and its proposed location along the banks of the Santa Clara River in north Los Angeles County -- drew fire from environmentalists and neighboring Ventura County, which feared the project's effects on traffic, water supplies and endangered species.

Ventura County, environmental groups and others raised those concerns in the lawsuit, which was filed in 1999. A year later they won a major victory when Randall ordered Newhall to rewrite its environmental documents to further study the effect of the development on traffic, aquatic life and a wildlife corridor.

Randall also required Newhall to prove that it had enough water for the project. The company responded in December 2002 with a detailed plan that promised to draw water from the State Water Project, groundwater supplies, reclaimed water from the development site and purchases from a private company in Kern County. That plan was approved by Los Angeles County supervisors in May.

Pressure from the project's opponents also forced Newhall to reduce the size of the project by nearly 4,000 homes, create new protections for the river and preserve 1,500 acres of nearby land in Ventura County as open space to protect a wildlife corridor.

Ventura County found the changes acceptable and dropped out of the suit earlier this month.

Attorney John Buse, who represented the remaining plaintiffs in court, said the changes were significant enough for environmentalists to claim a partial victory. Without the opposition, he said, "we would have seen a very different and much worse project."

Newhall Land had long contended that its project was a model of responsible development. According to the company, more than half of the 12,000-acre project would be preserved as open space.

In an Oct. 14 hearing, attorneys for the environmentalists argued that there had been insufficient analysis of the project's effect on an endangered fish, the unarmored threespine stickleback. They also raised concerns about chlorides, a byproduct of water treatment, that would be dumped into the river, possibly affecting flora and fauna.

Randall said the analysis of Newhall Ranch sufficiently documented any effects on the fish and provided "substantial evidence" to show that the chloride levels "will not adversely affect surface or groundwater quality."

Tom Barron, a project opponent and member of the group Friends of the Santa Clara River, called Randall's decision a "bummer," but added that he and others would continue to scrutinize the developer's plans for each individual neighborhood, which still require county approval.

The plaintiffs have the right to appeal Randall's decision but have not yet decided whether to do so, Buse said.

In July, the Santa Clarita-based Newhall Land agreed to be acquired by the nation's third-largest homebuilder, Lennar Corp., and a corporate partner. Lauffer said the sale would not result in any significant changes to the plans.

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