How Do We Best Assure Access?
Newhall Land & Farming Co.'s plan to build a community for more than 70,000 residents along the Santa Clara River between Valencia and the Ventura County line includes a proposal to transfer 6,000 acres of open space to a private, nonprofit group, the Center for Natural Lands Management, based in north San Diego County.
The decision has been sharply criticized by Santa Clarita officials and some conservationists who say public access would be ensured only if the land were placed under public ownership. The project, including the land transfer, must win approval from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
KARIMA A. HAYNES asked a city official and conservationists whether public or private agency would best ensure public access.
GEORGE CARAVALHO / City manager, Santa Clarita
We want this [area] to be in public ownership to ensure public access to recreational activities--hiking, mountain biking, camping and so forth. With private ownership, we don’t have any guarantee that public access will be there in the future.
Of the 6,000 acres, about 3,500 are contiguous to the Santa Clarita Woodlands, owned by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Since they are already right next door, it makes sense to place [the area] under public ownership. If you make a land dedication, it should be given to a public group. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has a good track record. . . . I think that the Conservancy can do a good job, as it has elsewhere with its holdings.
SHERRY TERESA / Executive director, Center for Natural Lands Management
Due to fluctuating budgets, political will and divisions over how money should be spent, a public agency will always choose to spend more on police and fire services than on the environment. So frequently these lands are left as orphans financially. That’s why the center was set up. The center was founded by members of public agencies such as the state Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The center exists to help public agencies to fulfill their mission in resources conservation.
There is no guaranteed funding from public agencies for these properties. We guarantee that the lands will always be there for the public [because] we are able to manage our money and get a greater return on our investments. We are not restricted like public agencies. All we do is manage land. We don’t get involved in politics. The public will get more bang for its buck.
The easement to the area guarantees public access. We [propose] compatible uses: hiking, bird-watching, nature study, montan biking, equestrian trails and river rafting. The only time the area will not be open to the public is if we have a public safety issue, like a mountain lion sightings or wildfires. If there is a restoration project we would reroute trails to other areas.
JOSEPH EDMISTON / Chief executive, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy
We feel a private entity is not appropriate. They come and go. . . . Public entities can be expected to be around for a long time.
Second, there is the issue of accountability. Newhall says that the open space is a benefit to the community and region. If a private organization wants to close the area for any reason, a resident can only complain to the board of directors and they are based in San Diego. With a government entity like the conservancy, the board meets every month and our offices are local.
The third issue, which is the primary one, is that public agencies have park rangers. They are multi-functional: They do [tours] and law enforcement. They are trained and certified firefighters. They perform the typical functions like rangers in state and national parks. They [The Center for Natural Lands Management] say if they have any problems they will call the sheriff. Why do that? We [already] have a whole profession dedicated to this function.
We are very concerned about the relationship between Newhall and a small, nonprofit private group. A small group is not going to be in a position to stand up and say no to Newhall. If a public agency says, “This is the standard and this is what we have to do,” it is in a better position to negotiate. The constituency of public agencies is the public. The constituency of Newhall is its stockholders.