Wildlife Habitat vs. Golf Course : Developer of Proposed Project Says Cattle Ruined Ecological Zone Before Protections Were Designed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A big Santa Clarita Valley land developer contends it should be allowed to build part of a huge golf course and housing project in a sensitive wildlife habitat, in part because the firm's cattle operations have already degraded the area, according to a draft environmental report.

Newhall Land & Farming Co. wants to build more than 1,900 houses and a golf course on a 798-acre site west of the Golden State Freeway that includes 300 acres of a county-designated Significant Ecological Area, or SEA, lying between Valencia Boulevard and McBean Parkway.

The area, known as the Valley Oaks Savannah SEA, is one of 61 areas designated for protection by the Los Angeles County General Plan because of their value as plant and animal habitat. Newhall Land's plan calls for building 350 houses and part of the golf course in the SEA, while saving most of the oak trees.

The plan is opposed by the Significant Ecological Area Technical Advisory Committee, a panel of biologists that advises county planners on development in SEAs. The committee rarely recommends denial of projects, more often suggesting changes to make them less intrusive.

But the panel has urged rejection of the Newhall Land project, known as Westridge, because of its "excessive significant adverse impact" on the SEA, according to a memo by the committee.

A draft environmental report on Westridge now circulating among county officials says the SEA's habitat value is a matter of dispute between SEATAC and a biologist retained by Newhall Land, who contends that cattle grazing has already damaged the area.

Cattle operations have strongly disturbed the site and left it with "a very depauperate (impoverished) flora and fauna," the draft report says.

Newhall Land's biologist believes, according to the report, that the site would never recover "a balanced flora and fauna" because of surrounding development.

But in an interview, SEATAC member Frank Hovore said damage from overgrazing is no reason to allow overdevelopment to destroy the habitat altogether. "If you get a scratch on your car door, you don't drive it into a wall," Hovore said.

Hovore and SEATAC member Tim Thomas also said that oak savannas are highly resilient and quickly recover in habitat value when overgrazing stops. Thomas complained that overgrazing may sometimes be a deliberate attempt by landowners "to try and degrade the site so it doesn't fit the standards for ecologic integrity."

Newhall Land officials said the company was grazing cattle long before the SEAs were designated. Spokeswoman Carol Maglione said that "a variety of factors . . . in addition to our company's cattle operation" have contributed to the SEA's decline--including the Golden State Freeway and other development in the area.

The Westridge project is one of dozens totaling 38,000 proposed units that will be affected by a new county area plan that will revise development policies for the Santa Clarita Valley. The Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on the proposed plan Nov. 29 or Dec. 6.

The plan proposed by county planners and the Regional Planning Commission would shave Westridge from about 1,900 units to 1,400. The reduction would mean less intensive development in the SEA and hillside portions of the site than Newhall Land wants.

Maglione said the company will try to persuade the supervisors to reject the proposed reductions. "What we are hoping is that the Board of Supervisors will consider putting back into place the original plan we submitted for Westridge," she said.

The plan revisions will amount to development guidelines, rather than final decisions on specific projects. If Newhall Land doesn't get its way with the supervisors, it may still request a General Plan amendment later to reinstate its plan.

The Westridge design, while striking out with SEATAC, won a planning prize for Newhall Land's consulting engineers, Sikand Engineering Associates of Van Nuys. According to a news release earlier this year, Sikand captured a "project of the year" award from the California Council of Civil Engineers and Land Surveyors for successfully working the huge project into the SEA.

However, Sikand's entry, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, falsely suggested that Westridge had earned SEATAC's stamp of approval, when in fact the panel had condemned it.

"The project has received major portions of the required governmental approvals and has recently completed the review process by the Significant Environmental Area Technical Advisory Committee (SEATAC)," the entry said, misnaming the committee.

"This group is comprised of botanists, foresters, landscape architects, environmental planners, university professors, etc.," the entry said. "Large amounts of time and expense were expended" with "this committee to demonstrate sensitivity to the environment," it said, neglecting to mention that these efforts had failed.

David Walden, who headed the judging committee for the California Council, said the organization takes submittals "at face value . . . We don't dig into their facts as they present them . . . to be sure every statement is correct."

Ron Horn, a Sikand vice president, said the Westridge plan was revised several times to meet SEATAC objections. "It was certainly my sense" that the panel was satisfied, he said.

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