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Cam Noltemeyer: Is Newhall Ranch’s river permit the right way?

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: June 30, 2010 7:11 p.m.
Updated: July 1, 2010 4:55 a.m.
 

One has to wonder why the 21,000-unit Newhall Ranch project proposed to be built on the Santa Clara River west of Interstate 5 is still around.

With some 40,000 housing units already approved but unbuilt in Santa Clarita Valley, and a continuing housing downturn, it is not as though we need more housing approvals out here.

Yet stock in Lennar (the owner of Newhall Land Development Inc.) rose 6 percent last week.

Could it have been on the news of the release of the final environmental documents for the alteration of the Santa Clara River, that just happen to support Newhall Land’s original plan?

With the release of this environmental-impact report for final comment, Newhall Land took another step in the development of this mega project. This permit would allow millions of cubic yards to fill the Santa Clara River flood plan and permit channeling and alteration of tributaries in the project area over a 20-year period.

The documents can be viewed at the Valencia, Newhall and Castaic branches of the Los Angeles County Library, and are also available online at www.dfg.ca.gov/regions/5/newhall/. The public has until July 18 to send in comments.

For more than 10 years, environmental organizations have all been requesting that any river-alteration permits be obtained before county approvals were granted.  After all, the Santa Clara River is the most important natural resource in our valley. It is the source of most of our water supply, it is home to many endangered species and prime farmland runs along its banks. Unlike the two other major rivers in Los Angeles County, it remains a natural wild river. It only makes sense to plan for the long-term protection of this natural resource first, then plan any proposed housing around it.

But instead, the county approved a specific plan in 2003 without requesting the developer to obtain the river-alteration permit first. Now the Army Corps of Engineers, in evaluating the river permit, considered only alternatives that fit into this specific plan as feasible. Other alternatives proposed both in the environmental documents and by environmental groups such as Friends of the Santa Clara River would have been far more protective of the river. But they didn’t fit the “project description.”

Such evaluations that end up with only the project proposed by the developer are probably illegal, but even worse, they don’t give the community and this important resource a fair shake.

Looking at a full range of alternatives that fully protect the river and our community is both required by law and will benefit our valley in the long run.

One result of the current housing downturn is that we have the opportunity to do a better job of planning any additional proposed projects that have not already been approved like Newhall Ranch. What is the rush?

There is no way that the current inventory of 40,000 housing approvals can be absorbed quickly leaving Santa Clarita residents short of housing in the near future. There are many who can’t even buy the housing available right now.

So we can take a deep breath and really look hard at this proposal. Did the previous Army Corps permit granted for the center of our city in 1998 work to protect the species in the river as promised? If so, where are those birds and fish now?

Did the public get the five-year annual reviews of the permit that they were promised in 1998? No. We must make sure that any new approval protects the river better than the last one.

And what about the proposed $210 million increase in sanitation rates for the salt in the river that we are all facing? New housing only increases this problem. Newhall Land, through its bankruptcy proceeding, has refused to pay several businesses and even some of the city’s bridge and thoroughfare district fees. Will all of us taxpayers have to pay for Newhall Ranch, too?

And the river is not the only issue. Since this project is so large, this environmental review must address all the impacts of the project. Can you imagine what the additional 357,000 trips per day will do to our traffic and air quality?

Perhaps you might want to write a quick letter with any concerns you might have. You can send your comments to: U.S. Army corps of Engineers, Regulatory Branch, Attn: CESPL-RG-2003-01264- AOA, 2151 Alessandro Dr. No. 110, Ventura, CA 93001.

Cam Noltemeyer is a Santa Clarita resident and a board member of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Environmentally Speaking” appears Thursdays and rotates among local environmentalists.

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