One of Southern California's longest-running and ugliest development battles ended in a historic truce Monday when environmental groups agreed to a deal that will allow a new city of 58,000 residents to rise in the Santa Clarita Valley.
The pact clears perhaps the largest remaining hurdle for the Newhall Ranch project, which was proposed during the development boom of the 1980s and has been stalled repeatedly by protests, legal challenges and even criminal investigations.
Newhall Ranch will join other large developments in the works along the Interstate 5 corridor that together are likely to transform one of the last undeveloped sections of Los Angeles County. To the north, developers built a massive outlet mall and are planning a housing and resort project at Tejon Ranch.
The Newhall Ranch project comes amid a severe housing crunch across California that has caused rents to rise dramatically and pushed cities such as Los Angeles to approve denser developments.
Northern L.A. County has long been one of the fastest-growing and affordable parts of Southern California, with tract developments spreading amid the desert scrub of Lancaster and Palmdale. And Newhall is expected to accelerate this growth even more.
Environmental groups and the Newhall developer signed the landmark agreement Monday. However, a few long-standing opponents of the project refused to sign on.
Under the deal, FivePoint Holdings, which is developing Newhall Ranch north of Los Angeles, has agreed to provide about $25 million for conservation efforts aimed at protecting an array of endangered species from plans to build the new city along a six-mile stretch of the Santa Clara River, the last free-flowing river in Southern California.
It also signed a separate proprietary agreement with the Wishtoyo Foundation, a nonprofit Native American organization, to provide a parcel and undisclosed funding for construction of a multimillion-dollar cultural center on ancestral lands within the development.
"This is a tremendous agreement which provides for added protections for Native American resources and the environment," said Emile Haddad, chairman and chief executive officer of FivePoint, "and allows one of the nation's most important new communities to take a major step forward — addressing California's housing crisis, and fueling the region's economy."
In exchange, a coalition led by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Wishtoyo Foundation/Ventura Coastkeeper, the California Native Plant Society and the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians will drop its lawsuit against the company and will not oppose development of new homes, golf courses, schools, recreation centers and 13 million square feet of commercial space.
The groups for years had campaigned against development of the sprawling ranch, arguing that it would extend Southern California's urban sprawl, add to regional traffic, threaten air and water quality, destroy Native American burial sites and wipe out endangered species such as the unarmored threespine stickleback fish, the arroyo toad and the San Fernando Valley spineflower.
Under the agreement, Newhall will provide about $16 million to establish an independent conservancy led by representatives of the environmental groups, and an additional $8 million to manage spineflowers and enhance their habitat.
"This agreement is the result of a heck of a lot of work in both courtrooms and boardrooms," Aruna Prabhala, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an interview. "It was all for the benefit of the plants and animals that inhabit the watershed, and the health of the people who will be sharing the landscape."
Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the district where Newhall Ranch is located, said in a statement that "this settlement balances the need for housing with unprecedented protection of our natural resources."
Newhall Ranch will make at least a small dent in Southern California's housing shortage, but there are questions about building so far out from the region's job centers.
The Southern California Assn. of Governments, the nation's largest metropolitan planning organization, has estimated that L.A. County needs to build roughly 180,000 housing units between 2014 and 2021 just to keep pace with population growth. (That figure doesn't take into account pre-existing housing shortages.)
"In the last five years, only 1,200 residential units were developed in unincorporated Los Angeles County," said Hasan Ikhrata, SCAG's executive director. "And a person has to earn $106,000 a year in order to afford a home in the region, where the median price is currently $600,000."
But Ikhrata noted that all that development — and new commuters making the daily trek into more urban areas for jobs — is going to strain the area's already congested roads.
"So, in addition to supplying homes," he added, "we must combat the congestion problems along Interstate 5,in part by creating enough jobs in the north county areas so that people don't have to commute to downtown Los Angeles."
Travis Longcore, an assistant professor of architecture and spatial sciences at USC, decried the Newhall agreement as "a sad day for natural open space in Southern California."
"Sprawl is alive and well," he said.
Indeed, the pact has sparked a feud with two other conservation groups, Friends of the Santa Clara River and the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, which refused to drop their own separate lawsuit against the company.
Lynne Plambeck of SCOPE said her group did not take the decision lightly, but ultimately couldn't go through with an agreement that restricted its ability to challenge the project.
"This is a Faustian bargain — we've gotten something material and we've sold our souls," she said. "We would not be able to say anything on the next 21,000 units, we would not be able to object if the [greenhouse gas] mitigation didn't come through as required, we would be precluded from saying anything if gas started seeping into people's homes."
"We shouldn't have to be muzzled to get conservation funds," she added.
Ileene Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Center for Biological Diversity, said: "My heart is broken that it has come to this. But now, we can do some good for the river and the ecological networks it nourishes."
Over the last two decades, the courts have ruled for and against the mammoth project to be built in a flood plain, about 40 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
At one point, Los Angeles prosecutors investigated allegations that the company was destroying the San Fernando Valley spineflower, which is found in only one other location on Earth. That investigation ended when the developer agreed to create a 64-acre preserve for the plant.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife this year certified Newhall Ranch's environmental impact report after reviewing modifications made to mitigate concerns raised by the California Supreme Court. The court rejected a version of the document in 2015.
The changes include measures to offset 100% of the greenhouse emissions the development will generate by requiring that houses, commercial buildings and public facilities have solar panels. The new plan also would require that up to 21,000 homes have electric vehicle charging stations — with subsidies offered to purchase electric vehicles.
A key sticking point for environmentalists had been the threat the development posed for the unarmored threespine stickleback fish. Newhall responded with a proposal for building bridges and bank stabilization infrastructure that it says will avoid all water contact during construction.
State wildlife officials said these changes eliminated the need for controversial protection measures such as trapping and relocating the stickleback.
Earlier this year, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors certified tract maps for the company's first two villages, Landmark and Mission. Three more villages are expected to follow.
The agreement was the second major truce among environmental groups and developers since 2008, when the Tejon Ranch Co. agreed to set aside 178,000 acres and provide an option for public purchase of 62,000 additional acres to create a state park, realign a 37-mile segment of the Pacific Crest Trail and provide docent-led tours of sensitive habitat. It also pulled back development plans from ridgelines crucial to the endangered California condor.
In that case, a coalition of five environmental groups promised not to fight Tejon Ranch's plans to build three urban centers, including more than 26,000 homes as well as hotels, condominiums and golf courses.
3:05 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Supervisor Kathryn Barger and the Southern California Assn. of Governments, and to reflect that the Tejon Ranch development would realign part of the Pacific Crest Trail.