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UPDATED: Sprawl versus growth

General plan amendments accomodated development

Posted: October 7, 2008 10:21 p.m.
Updated: December 9, 2008 5:00 a.m.

'One Valley, One Vision' is a guide to growth in Santa Clarita.

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Third story in "The Big Picture," The Signal's series about plans for growth in the Santa Clarita Valley. Officials amended the county and city general plan as developers asked for a higher density. Click here for the rest of the stories.

The 12,000 acres of lush fields wedged between sharp mountain ranges and Highway 126 look about the same as they did decades ago.

Until nine years ago, the farms were designated on the county maps as rural, which prohibited the property owner from building anything more than about one home per acre, according to Mitch Glaser, L.A. County supervising regional planner.

Now the fields are scheduled to become a Valencia-sized community called Newhall Ranch after the county changed its general plan in 1999 to allow for about 60,000 people in nearly 22,000 homes.

The city and county both changed their general plans for the Santa Clarita Valley over the past few decades in the form of general plan amendments, documents show.

"The people who moved to Santa Clarita did not move here because it was a densely packed, traffic-choked, crime-ridden urban nightmare," said former City Councilman TimBen Boydston. "And they do not understand why a small minority of people believe huge increases in density are needed as we continue to build our city. The people do not understand what has happened to our government, but they would like it back."

County and city planners are drafting a new general plan that they say could discourage local leaders from approving radical general plan amendments in the future. The new One Valley, One Vision city-county general plan is more sophisticated than past plans and aims to limit urban sprawl, county and city officials said.

The land use maps in the city and county's general plans show the maximum number of homes allowed per acre for any given parcel of land in the Santa Clarita Valley. As plans go before the county or city for approval, developers can ask city or county leaders to change the land use map to accommodate their plans, often to allow for higher density for their housing development. State law allows local policymakers to approve up to four general plan amendments per year for the land use element.

Individually the county and city's general plan amendments don't seem like much when adding a few hundred or even a few thousand more homes at a time. Cumulatively, however, through the decades the amendments resulted in a Santa Clarita Valley landscape different from the vision in the old city and county plans.

"I think there was always an expectation in earlier (general) plans that they would continue to need to be amended as growth would continue," Glaser said. "We had urban and rural designations, but I don't think that there was a direction in the plan that said those rural designations would always be rural. I think there was an expectation that as growth would continue, we would look at where additional areas would be designated for urban."

The county changed its general plan's SCV land use map 23 times over the past 30 years, according to data provided by the Department of Regional Planning.

Though some amendments decreased the potential density of a development, developers in some cases were allowed to build far more homes in the valley than the county land use maps originally allowed, documents show.

Between the formal general plan updates in 1977, 1984 and 1990 and today, county supervisors approved at least 10 county general plan amendments of 100 acres or more.

Projects include the 1,300-acre NorthLake development planned for Castaic and the 1,800-acre Tesoro del Valle in Saugus.

"This doesn't sound unusual at all," said Randall Crane, a UCLA planning professor. "General plans have to be updated regularly by law, for one thing. For another, they don't generally explain growth so much as try to accommodate it, especially in times of rapid change."

Unlike One Valley, One Vision, the previous county general plans for the Santa Clarita Valley didn't plan all the way to "build out" - the point at which the valley has reached capacity, Glaser said.

The 1977 SCV Area Plan states "the total eventual population in the Santa Clarita Valley will stabilize between 130,000 and 140,000" based on the plan's land-use concept. The plan, however, leaves room for future changes and states the concept "is a result more of specific policy decisions than it is of expected population growth."

The SCV Area Plan adopted in 1990 listed a population projection of 270,000 residents for the year 2010. That population projection didn't include any residents in the valley's rural areas, Glaser said.

"When we did population projections for the 1990 plan, the population projections were just for the urban areas," he said.

The general plan amendments were not made in recent years and developers did not necessarily end up building all the homes the amendments allowed them to build, said Paul Novak, planning deputy for Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich.

"There will certainly be growth but there are a lot of limitations in growth already in place," Novak said. "I don't expect massive growth increases as a result of One Valley, One Vision."

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