Newhall Ranch: The unending quest to develop the Santa Clara River
Like some unending TV soap opera, the efforts to permit the Newhall Ranch and the persistent opposition of community activists continues — and it’s far from being over yet.
More than a year ago the Sierra Club joined four other environmental organizations to challenge the first phase approval of the massive Newhall Ranch project that would bring 21,000 new housing units. The largest "new town" urban sprawl project ever approved in the state of California is located adjacent to the Santa Clara River, Los Angeles County’s last free-flowing river. The preservation of this rare gem, inhabited by several endangered species and remaining a prime example of what the Los Angeles River could have been without all that concrete, has been a focus for Angeles Chapter activists for more than a decade.
After successful litigation against the Ranch Specific Plan (where a court decision in 2000 set the project EIR aside for failure to address questions surrounding its water supply), the developer simply returned with an additional eight volumes of reports. In spite of all the disclosed impacts, the county simply couldn’t say no.
The original owners, the Newhall Land and Farming Co., did not survive the housing downturn. But after a bankruptcy that cost the California Employees Pension Fund (CalPers) its biggest loss ever (approximately 1 billion dollars), the project has returned from the dead, now funded by several New York hedge funds. No longer locally owned, Newhall Ranch has now raised the ire of a much broader group of people.
Who foots the bill? Taxpayers, of course
As local taxpayers realize the potential costs of the infrastructure that they apparently will be made to fund, and the impacts of global warming become more apparent, this massive auto-oriented project makes less and less sense. Rising gas prices may ring a death knell to the project as moderate economic level homeowners find it more and more expensive to fill a commuter gas tank every week.
In the meantime, a lawsuit filed by several national, state and local environmental groups against the California Fish and Game Department for its approval of Newhall’s River Alteration permit, along with Sierra Club’s action against the first phase approval, have delayed its groundbreaking.
After a ruling in favor of the conservation groups, the developer’s attorney did the unthinkable: He filed a bias claim against the judge, apparently in large part because his clients didn’t like her opinion against them. Whatever happened to the Rule of Law? The judge was rightfully and quickly cleared of any misconduct, but this unseemly tactic threw a well-warranted delay into the legal proceedings. With the alteration permit still up in the air, a stay was granted on the phase one proceeding to which Sierra Club is a party.
The action apparently has left the developer and its hedge fund owners a bit out of pocket. To make up for these delays and the continued slow real estate market, Lennar Corp., the Florida-based builder and parent company of Newhall, held a year-end fire sale, casting off several real estate assets to beef up December cash balances. One of those assets was the water company they had owned for decades, the same water company that served their many developments and is scheduled to serve Newhall Ranch.
New water company purchase contract makes improper assurances about water for Newhall
In a lighting quick back room deal over the holidays with only 24 hours notice to the public, Castaic Lake Water Agency moved $73.8 million in public funds into the hands of this corporation and their New York hedge fund owners. They bought Valencia Water Co. without conducting a CEQA review and with an advance promise to serve all of Newhall’s projects in the Purchase Contract, a promise they cannot legally make. But perhaps the most disturbing fact about this transaction is that Castaic, a state water wholesaler, is legally prohibited from owning this water retailer. At its recent executive committee meeting, the Angeles Chapter voted to approve a resolution asking the Public Utilities Commission to investigate the actions of the water company and its owners, and to send a letter to complaint to the Office of the Attorney General.
Lynne Plambeck is an activist for the Angeles Chapter who has worked on Newhall Ranch development issues for decades. Photo: An aerial view of development area. Credit: Lynne Plambeck, with grateful appreciation to Lighthawk, flights for the environment.