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Vision of the Future May Be Only Mirage

Residents of California City are divided over officials' ambitious plans to revive the town.

March 15, 2004|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

CALIFORNIA CITY, Calif. — The considerable ambitions of this dusty speck in the western Mojave Desert may have been thwarted by a ground squirrel, a tortoise and six angry landowners.

The state's third-largest city in land area, with a population of about 10,000, California City has been annexing its way across the high desert and now covers more than 200 square miles. Few noticed until the city annexed, then condemned, 4,500 acres of Kern County desert to make way for a Hyundai auto proving grounds that would add $500,000 to the town's small tax base.

Some property owners were disturbed when the city's redevelopment agency invoked its power of eminent domain to label their empty tracts "urban and blighted," then sold the property to the automaker. Though most sellers were happy to unload their land, six holdout landowners have filed suit in federal court seeking to halt construction of the test track. The city is suing the landowners in state court, hoping to keep alive a project city officials say is vital to the life of a moribund town.

But the more significant roadblock to the $50-million project could be two homely, rare animal species that live in this part of the high desert. Hyundai intends to bulldoze the ground for its 6.4-mile oval track on top of burrows for the protected California desert tortoise and the Mojave ground squirrel. The state and federal governments have approved the project, but conservation groups have challenged it in court. That litigation, too, is pending.

None of this bodes well for California City. The increase in growth and jobs seen in much of the Antelope Valley has not occurred here, where unemployment is 11.4%. City boosters used to predict this would be "the next Palm Springs" or "the next Las Vegas," but now most would be grateful to be the next Lancaster.

For this town, home for 50 years to land speculators, business schemers and con men, the Hyundai test track represents the fulfillment of the promise mocked by its 600 miles of paved -- but empty -- streets and vacant subdivisions.

"The track is going to be good for us," said City Manager Jack Stewart. "We've got a water system and a road system built to handle 50,000 people. It's just that 32,000 haven't shown up yet."

The west Mojave landscape is pocked with busted boomtowns and bizarre projects orphaned by their architects. Towns like California City -- whose name announces its aspirations -- were a product of the state's post-World War II population boom.

California City sits atop a large aquifer, which once irrigated vast alfalfa fields. In 1958, the town's first booster already was boasting of sprawling residential villages, parks, medical clinics and a local campus of the Cal State system.

Today, the town is still waiting for its first supermarket.

Mayor Larry Adams blames much of the controversy about the Hyundai project on environmentalists who care more for the desert tortoise than the welfare of his town, which can afford only 13 police officers.

"I'll tell you what, I'd like to borrow some money from the tortoise because he's got so much of it," Adams said, referring to an endowment from Hyundai for the purchase of land for the tortoise and Mojave ground squirrel.

The tortoise -- California City's official mascot -- is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, and the squirrel is considered threatened under state definitions. Permits from state and federal wildlife agencies were required for the Hyundai project -- a process that can take up to four years.

To speed things along, the city and Hyundai hired former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, now an attorney in Washington, D.C. It was Babbitt who, while secretary of the Interior, helped fashion California's groundbreaking tortoise habitat conservation plan. With his involvement, the permit came through in less than two years.

Conservationists say haste led to an inadequate assessment of the project's effect on the tortoise.

"Babbitt came in and strong-armed people and rammed this plan through," said Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist with the Center For Biological Diversity, which is challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in court.

Judy Hohman, the agency's division chief for the Mojave-Great Basin District, agreed that the permitting process went unusually quickly but said the permit was issued properly.

"At some point the service decided that this project was in fact a priority and that we should focus attention on it and get it done," she said. "We did."

The permit allows up to 54 tortoises to be removed from the site in exchange for the future purchase of 3,200 acres, where the animals would be relocated.

So far, 23 tortoises have been found during construction and placed in temporary burrows. Biologists critical of the plan say relocation can traumatize the tortoises and expose them to disease.

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