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Lynne Plambeck: Developers need to keep promises

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: June 16, 2010 4:52 p.m.
Updated: June 17, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Over the 23 years of SCOPE’s existence, we have made a few agreements with what is now Newhall Land Development — one on the North Park Specific Plan, and another after the approval of the Newhall Ranch specific plan.

These agreements did not address all of the many issues created by these two projects, but they at least added some assurance that the public would receive needed infrastructure. In the interest of residents of the Santa Clarita Valley, we dropped our appeals. 

One such agreement was made during the approval of the North Park Specific Plan. At the time, our schools were very overcrowded. Trail connections for horseback riders and others in the equestrian community to San Francisquito Creek were not addressed adequately in the specific plan. We sought a guarantee that Newhall Land would make an agreement with the school district for new schools and that a feeder trail to San Francisquito Creek would be established so horse riders, cyclists and walkers would not be cut off from trails that ran along the creek.

Ironically, after being chided so often for our civic activities in the planning arena, a column in The Signal chided us again for sitting down at the table with Newhall Land. In a column by (former General Manager) Tim Whyte entitled “SCOPE and Newhall Land sitting in a tree,” he rather mockingly described our agreement. Oh well. At least he didn’t call us “developmental terrorists.” 

At the time, I was particularly pleased because the little extra push afforded by this agreement toward adequate school facilities just happened to be signed by Mark Subbotin of Newhall Land on my son’s birthday. For me, my efforts became a gift to the community with which to honor my son’s memory.

The county included the resolution of these two issues as project conditions in the North Park approval. Now, more than 10 years later, both Newhall Land and the county seem to have forgotten about the agreement and the trail easement.

Residents of San Francisquito Canyon have had to spend many hours digging up old documents to prove its existence.

All the development in Santa Clarita approved over the last several decades had “conditions of approval” attached to it, along with mitigation requirements to make the project acceptable and comply with the California Environmental Quality Act. 

The question now is, “Who is minding the store?” Who is checking to see if these conditions are being followed and that the required mitigation is in place?  The public has had to accept all the impacts of this additional housing. Shouldn’t they be able to rely on the county, the city and Newhall Land to keep their promises and provide the benefits?

And after Newhall Land’s bankruptcy, are these conditions even enforceable? 

Unfortunately, one of the huge downsides of bankruptcy for the public turns out to be the fact that this legal proceeding dissolves all agreements unless Newhall Land (owned by Florida-based Lennar Corp., one of the largest developers in the nation) chooses to “assume” them.

Lennar Corp. is still making money according to its financial reports, but has chosen to ignore and “not assume” many of its agreements. Will it instead walk away from the promises and obligations made to the community through the bankruptcy process?

Newhall Land chose not to “assume” its agreement with SCOPE over the Newhall Ranch Specific Plan. Unless the company changes its mind, many parts of the agreement to provide water reports and verifications may become unenforceable. We made the agreement in good faith and kept our promise to drop the appeal. Will Newhall Land keep its part of the bargain?

Newhall Land’s promise to make payments into bridge-and-thoroughfare and landscape districts to help pay for roads and landscaped medians also seems to have been dissolved in the bankruptcy. Will the public have to pay for such broken promises in increased taxes?

Developers all over the nation are using the bankruptcy process to walk away from obligations they made during the approval of their projects.

The community must rely on our local government, the county and the city to ensure that conditions of project approvals are followed and that promised mitigation is in place. Are these agencies doing their job?

Perhaps Santa Clarita also needs a citizen’s oversight committee to review project conditions and ensure that required mitigation is in place.

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Environmentally Speaking” appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists.


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