The two California Department of Fish and Wildlife scientists charged with doing environmental work on the proposed Newhall Ranch development had a daunting task.
They were to help review whether and how the largest residential development ever approved in Los Angeles County — 20,000 homes stretching across a bucolic valley — could be built without undue harm to the environment, protected species and Southern California's last major wild river, the Santa Clara.
The project was controversial and dizzyingly complicated. It has already been the subject of multiple lawsuits and generated more than 110,000 pages of records.
But there was at least one perk for the scientists: new vehicles to get around in, courtesy of the developer, Newhall Land and Farming Co. The developer gave the 2008 Ford Explorer and the 2008 Ford 150 truck to the agency that year as the state employees dug into their review of the company's proposal. The state still has them.
Some environmentalists view the gift vehicles as a symptom of what they say is a coziness between the Department of Fish and Wildlife and Newhall Land.
"Where is the oversight?" asked Lynne Plambeck, president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, one of a small band of environmental and Native American organizations that continues to fight the Newhall Ranch project.
The activists assert in a pending lawsuit that environmental concerns did not get a fair hearing during the agency's years-long review of the proposed development.
Loyola law professor Jessica Levinson, vice president of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, said the gift of the cars raises questions about a conflict of interest.
"The developer is giving something to the people who are making a determination as to a project that could benefit it," she said.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife has no record of having accepted other cars from a private company in the last decade, according to documents and spokeswoman Jordan Traverso.
But both the developer and Fish and Wildlife officials said there was nothing untoward about the gift, that the vehicles were part of a $1.7-million agreement under which the company has paid for staff time and other costs associated with its projects.
Such fees often include transportation expenses, experts said, but gifts of cars are not usual.
"The acceptance of these vehicles was perfectly legal and did not have any undue influence on the review" of the environmental impact report required of most major development projects, Traverso said in a statement.
Fish and Wildlife signed off on the Newhall Ranch development in 2010. Environmentalists sued, and in 2012 a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge faulted the department for failing to do a sufficient environmental analysis of some aspects of the plan or ensuring that certain effects of the development would be mitigated.
The developer and the state appealed that decision. Last month, California's 2nd District Court of Appeal heard oral arguments in the case. A ruling is expected soon. The vehicles are not part of the legal dispute.
Newhall Land officials issued a statement in which they noted that the terms of their contract with Fish and Wildlife "specifically required the company to purchase and transfer title to the state for two trucks that would be used by staff assigned to conduct the environmental review."
"The Department and Newhall Land considered these vehicles necessary equipment for the staffers to complete the task of assessing the project's more than 12,000-acre area ... and its range of habitats," Newhall spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer said in the statement.
She disputed the notion that Fish and Wildlife went easy on the company during the review process, which she said "resulted in significant change to the project," including an endowment of $10 million for resource conservation.
"It was a very robust and thorough review," she said, noting that the development will set aside more than 60% of its 12,000 acres as a nature preserve, an area almost double the size of Griffith Park.
A series of emails in 2007 and 2008 between department officials and their counterparts at the state Department of Finance show that the officials had questions about accepting the two Fords.
"Considering that we, along with a lot of departments, are having problems with under-utilized vehicles, what is the view of accepting vehicles as gifts?" Ann Raymond, a Fish and Wildlife administrative officer, wrote to another state staff member on March 21, 2007.
She said Fish and Wildlife, then called Fish and Game, "had proposed renting vehicles from General Services, but the company wants to 'gift' 2 new vehicles to us as part of the contract. I just don't want to run into problems with this contract or the 'gifts'...."
Andrew Erias, a staff member in the Department of Finance, also questioned the need for the gift in March 28 email, asking, "Why would [the department] accept vehicles if they already have an apparent oversupply?"
Ultimately, the email exchanges show, state finance officials determined that the vehicles could be accepted if state gift regulations were followed; officials said they were.
Traverso, the Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, said the vehicles "were accepted because no other [department] vehicles were available in the local area of the employees' office to share. Staff worked in two distinct areas, and it was not practical to share other under-utilized vehicles."