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Santa Clarita to Try Again to Expand Influence : Planning: The city wants an official designation so it will have more clout with county land-use authorities. It will ask for less territory in smaller chunks.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hoping they’ve learned a lesson from two prior tries, officials here will soon reappear before Los Angeles County’s boundary-setting agency in a bid to extend Santa Clarita’s influence over several square miles of unincorporated land in the surrounding valley.

City officials last week began talks with staff from the Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, about expanding Santa Clarita’s “sphere of influence.” The sphere designates land as eligible for annexation and gives the city political clout when presenting its views to county leaders on development and other issues in the area.

“A sphere of influence is a planning tool,” said Lynn Harris, community development director for Santa Clarita. “It gives direction for the city.”

LAFCO rejected Santa Clarita requests for a sphere of influence in 1989 and 1992, citing developer opposition and the young age of the city, which had been incorporated in 1987.

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In the 1992 attempt, agency commissioners also noted the “political firestorm” surrounding a controlled-growth measure on the citywide ballot. At the time, they did not want a heated political campaign and the LAFCO issue to become entangled. The ballot measure ultimately failed.

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Since incorporation, Santa Clarita has enacted stringent development controls such as ordinances that safeguard oak trees and inhibit building on primary ridgelines and hillsides. The two LAFCO rejections have left the young city with little to say about construction just outside its borders.

And even before Santa Clarita was incorporated, LAFCO virtually controlled the shape of the city-to-be, approving 40 square miles when city backers sought 90.

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Santa Clarita officials believe they have a better chance this time around of winning LAFCO approval.

“We’ve decided to come at it from a different angle,” said Harris. “We’re going back in now because we have an innovative approach.”

First, Santa Clarita is asking for smaller, phased-in extensions rather than the single, 160-square-mile grab it attempted before. Despite its differences with Santa Clarita, the agency has approved all 10 of the neighborhood-sized annexations the city has requested during the past seven years.

Second, the sphere won’t expand past the Santa Clarita Valley’s most recognizable man-made boundaries--the Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways. Staying within this triangle eliminates the notion that the city is trying to gain an upper hand in its fight against a proposed landfill in nearby Elsmere Canyon, a controversial issue that carries its own set of politics, Harris said.

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Third, Ruth Benell retired at the end of 1993. She was the longtime LAFCO executive officer whom Santa Clarita leaders had blamed for playing a major role in scuttling their earlier requests.

James J. Colangelo, Benell’s successor, agrees that the city’s new strategy is a sound one.

“The less complex and smaller magnitude you ask for, the better your chance for approval,” Colangelo said.

City officials who slowly expand their city’s sphere of influence and demonstrate they will work with landowners within the area are more apt to gain LAFCO approval, Colangelo said.

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Opinions differ as to how important the action, if approved, will be for Santa Clarita. In the long term, the city hopes to annex its sphere-of-influence areas.

Those who have supported the city’s efforts say it is crucial, especially as economic recovery and growth return to the Santa Clarita Valley.

“We have significant growth issues in the Santa Clarita Valley,” Harris said. “This may have been on the shelf, but it hasn’t been far from our mind.”

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Less insistent are those who are involved with LAFCO.

“It’s a line that’s drawn on a map,” said Colangelo. “I think sometimes people put a lot more energy into fighting for a sphere of influence than it deserves.”

Meetings between city and LAFCO staff will continue through this month, and the formal application process is expected to begin in February.


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