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Newhall Ranch project faces new hurdles with environmentalists' suit

Environmental IssuesEnvironmental PollutionCourts and the JudiciaryCrime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemEnvironmental PoliticsEndangered Species

This post has been corrected, as indicated below.

Environmentalists took a new step Thursday in a decades-long dispute by filing a lawsuit against federal agencies that gave permission for construction of a community of 60,000 residents along the last wild river in Southern California.

The lawsuit claims the Clean Water Act permit approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 failed to accurately assess the effect the Newhall Ranch project would have on water quality, Native American cultural sites, and endangered plants and animals along the Santa Clara River.

The government permit authorizes the developer, Newhall Land and Farming Co., to fill in and alter more than 82 acres of flood plain and tributaries at the site 35 miles north of Los Angeles. The project would be built in phases over 20 to 30 years, ultimately covering 2,587 acres with 19,812 residential units and about 51/2 million square feet of commercial space.

"We're opposed to this project because it would plunk a new city down in the last undeveloped river valley in Southern California," said Ron Bottorff, a spokesman for Friends of the Santa Clara River. "That land should be set aside for wildlife that rely on it for survival."

Marlee Lauffer, spokeswoman for Newhall Land, had not yet reviewed the lawsuit. However, she said, "We spent over a decade working with Army Corps and other federal and state agencies analyzing and reviewing all of the environmental issues" of the project.

The 12,000-acre area is home to threatened and endangered fauna and flora, including San Fernando Valley spineflowers, unarmored threespine sticklebacks, least Bell's vireos, southwestern willow flycatchers, coastal California gnatcatchers, arroyo toads and California condors.

Opponents also say they fear that storm water discharges containing pollutants such as dissolved copper would significantly harm migrating steelhead trout and their offspring in the river.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Wishtoyo Foundation, Ventura Coastkeeper, Friends of the Santa Clara River and the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment.

The project has languished for more than two decades amid heavy opposition. Three years ago, a coalition of environmental groups sued the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for allegedly approving a permit without fully assessing the project's potential environmental effects. That case is now at the appellate court.

[For the record, 8:40 p.m. March 6, 2014: A previous version of this article stated that the suit was filed Tuesday. It was filed Thursday.]

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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