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Barbara Wampole: New housing project will harm river

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: August 18, 2011 3:04 p.m.
Updated: August 18, 2011 3:04 p.m.

Last week, The Signal reported that the 21,000-unit Newhall Ranch proposal west of Interstate 5 on Highway 126 was a step closer to approval because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declined to elevate the review of its river-alteration permit.

It seemed to many of us in the environmental community that this was much ado about nothing. The EPA only rarely chooses to elevate the review of permits, so this outcome was to be expected.

We might have hoped, however, that this national government agency, which we’ve charged with safeguarding our air and water quality, would have taken a much stronger position on such a large, auto-dependent project located on the last free-flowing river in Los Angeles County. With some 20 miles of the Santa Clara River and its tributaries slated for the channeling or banking needed to accommodate this project, the inevitable loss of habitat will be devastating to the many endangered and threatened species that inhabit this area.

Coupled with harm to natural resources is the harm posed by the 357,000 additional trips per day this project will add to our already gridlocked local roads and freeways.

Do we really need another 21,000 units in Santa Clarita? With tens of thousands of units already permitted for building and a continued housing downturn, such immense quantities of new houses are unlikely to sell anytime soon.

How will Lennar Corp. finance the infrastructure needed to pay for their project? With Lennar’s bonds downgraded a few weeks ago to BB (essentially junk-bond status), the question raised is whether local residents will be picking up the tab for the hedge-fund investors in this troubled housing project.

Around 2006, Lennar placed Newhall Ranch and other risky holdings into a limited liability corporation called Landsource. After borrowing $1 billion from the California Public Employees Pension Fund, Landsource declared bankruptcy, leaving the pension fund high and dry, resulting in the largest single loss ever suffered by the employees pension fund.

Recently, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich approved transferring $21 million from bridge and thoroughfare districts in the Valencia and Bouquet area specified for traffic improvements in their neighborhoods to instead help fund the $55 million Commerce Center Bridge Interchange that will serve Newhall Ranch.

Newhall Land was required to come up with only $3 million of the funding out of pocket; the remaining funds are to come from grants and other taxpayer funds. How will the needed traffic improvements be built on the east side of Santa Clarita, if Newhall Land is unable sell its houses and repay the funding? This is a scenario that seems more and more likely.

The EPA, charged with enforcing the Clean Water Act, found it “troubling” that Newhall Land would propose using a sanitation plant that is already out of compliance, and can’t meet standards for clean-water regulations. Friends of the Santa Clara River finds it unconscionable that the EPA would even consider allowing such a proposal to proceed. We can only hope that future regulatory safeguards will remedy the situation.

There is, last but not least, the matter of yet another Valencia well closure due to ammonium perchlorate pollution in our community’s groundwater supply. This is the sixth well closure.

This chemical, a by-product of munitions manufacturing, affects the thyroid gland and might cause retardation and developmental behavior problems in our community’s children.

Does the spread of perchlorate to a well located close to City Hall mean that the pollution has spread and will contaminate other wells? The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services is taking no chances. It has ordered additional monitoring and new modeling to track of the pollution plume’s course below ground.

If this contamination is spreading, how can we add another 21,000 housing units to the thousands of others already approved in Santa Clarita? How will the water agencies ensure there is a clean and adequate supply of water for existing residents? Why didn’t the EPA ask these questions? We are posing them for all of us to be sure that we do get answers.

With our community facing problems, ranging from traffic and infrastructure funding to clean drinking water and our stressed environment, Los Angeles County supervisors need to hear from you at this autumn’s hearings for the first two tracts of this massive project; Mission Village and Landmark Village.

This is not a done deal, as some would have us believe.

Please make your voices heard!

Barbara Wampole is vice chair of Friends of the Santa Clara River.


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