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Year in Review: Judge’s ruling slows down Newhall Ranch development

Newhall Land Development Inc. appeals on alleged conflict of interest

Posted: December 28, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 27, 2012 2:00 a.m.
 

A master-planned community proposed by the same developer that built Valencia was dealt a setback in 2012 after 18 years of planning.

In September, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones ruled Newhall Ranch, proposed by Newhall Land Development Inc. and approved by Los Angeles County, violated some provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act and that further study was necessary.

Calling the proposed development of 21,000 homes along with commercial centers an “urban-planning disaster,” environmentalists said the project west of Santa Clarita would harm the Santa Clara River and have substantial negative environmental impacts on water quality, on aquatic and riparian habitat, on wildlife movements, on greenhouse gas emissions and on Native American cultural resources.

Newhall Land had already gone through a decadelong environmental review process and spent more than $10 million to create the most “environmentally sensitive development plan in Los Angeles County history,” responded Marlee Lauffer, spokeswoman for the firm.

In November, Newhall Land filed a motion to remove Jones from the case for failing to disclose her efforts to stop a property from being subdivided near her home in the Santa Clarita Valley, and of working with an environmentalist in that effort. The developer called on Jones to recuse herself from future rulings and said it would appeal her decision.

A decision on Jones’ status in the Newhall Ranch case is expected next month.

Newhall Land first filed an application with the county to develop Newhall Ranch in 1994, The land had been identified as appropriate for urban development under the L.A. County General Plan Update in 1990.

The project was the second master-planned one undertaken by the developer, which developed the neighborhood communities of Valencia, schools, some of the city’s major streets and Santa Clarita’s first industrial business park, shopping mall and full-service hotel in the center of town.

Newhall Land’s nearly two-decadelong odyssey to actually begin building Newhall Ranch was chronicled in a two-part series in The Signal in April 2012.

At that time, Newhall Ranch’s history was recorded in 109,444 pages of project documents. The master-planned community had been reviewed by 25 government agencies, had 21 public hearings and several lawsuits, and was the topic of more than 700 meetings.

Differing viewpoints

The debate deals in part with the massive size of the planned community. But building on the land without a master plan would be irresponsible, Lauffer said.

“Master-planning has great benefits, but it just takes a very, very long time,” she said.

Not all development is bad, said Lynne Plambeck, president of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment, one of the organizations that joined many of the lawsuits against Newhall Ranch over the years.

“Master-planning makes sense. Valencia made sense,” said Plambeck. “Newhall Land did some really wonderful things for the community.”

But Plambeck said the community would be better served by smaller developments.

The problem with developments like Newhall Ranch, Plambeck said, is that they are so large and involve so much land use that they take the planning process out of the hands of future generations.

“When you approve huge tracts, people tend not to revitalize their neighborhoods,” Plambeck said. “If you just build a bunch of new housing, you get the ‘throw-away house’ idea. I won’t repair my house, ‘I’ll just sell my house and buy in a new community.’”

Cottage industry

Newhall Land has spent millions of dollars on reports, studies, surveys and assessments, said Randy Wrage, a Santa Clarita resident and spokesperson for Spirit Properties, which is not involved in the Newhall Ranch development dispute.

Saying the environmental community has become a cottage industry, Wrage believes if a portion of the money spent fighting over environmental issues were put to use instead protecting local habitat, the money would be better spent.

An outdoorsman himself, Wrage said he likes to bicycle, hike and ski and appreciates the protection of land and habitat, but sometimes people take issues to an extreme.

“There are developers who haven’t seen a square foot of land that shouldn’t be developed, and likewise, there are environmentalists who are only interested in dragging out the development process,” he said.

Wrage cited a project he worked on in 1999 shoring up a naturally eroding river bank by extending concrete lined banks. That project took months of studies and hundreds of thousands of dollars in mitigation, he said.

“You would have thought it was a stream and uninhabited area instead of an urban wash full of empty beer cans, trash and people living in it,” he said.

And in the end, Wrage said, regardless of whether residents are pro- or anti-development, the lengthy delays of projects eventually add to the cost of each home for home buyer.

The cost to build a home has grown over the years, and with each project delay the fees a builder pays for permits, water, schools and more grow as well.

Locally, the fees, on average, add $88,000 to the cost of every home built, Wrage said.

In the meantime, Newhall Land knew it would take a long time to build Newhall Ranch, Lauffer said.

The company just didn’t envision it would take this long, she said.

To read the original series go to www.signalscv.com/archives/63173/ and

www.signalscv.com/archives/63583/.

jana@signalscv.com

661-287-5599

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