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Opponents See Newhall Ranch Project’s Glass as Half Empty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the largest housing development in Los Angeles County history moves toward a final vote, an old California problem remains the major unresolved issue: water.

Many of those initially opposed to Newhall Land & Farming Co.'s proposed planned community in the Santa Clarita Valley said negotiations have nearly resolved their concerns.

That leaves Ventura County, some members of the Santa Clarita City Council and environmentalists as the primary opponents to the massive project, scheduled for a vote Tuesday by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

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Critics said Newhall Ranch is only the latest example of a long-standing tradition in California of building homes without enough water to supply them. In fact, the project was a poster boy of sorts during a statewide water policy debate in 1995 that led to a new law forcing local agencies to consider the availability of water before giving approval.

If the Newhall project is approved Tuesday as expected, a lawsuit is almost certain.

“That threat still stands,” said Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long. “They haven’t done the work on water they need to do.”

The massive project, which proposes a new community the size of Huntington Park, has been grinding through the approval process since 1994, meeting fierce resistance at every step.

Then in July, Supervisor Mike Antonovich told the company to reduce the size of the project and make other changes in response to opponents’ concerns.

Each of the five supervisors has received political contributions from the influential land company.

Antonovich, in whose district the project lies, has received $69,825 in contributions from the company and its officers over the years, including $14,130 since the project was filed, according to political contribution records.

Contributions to the other supervisors were: Yvonne Brathwaite Burke: $33,150, $11,750 since the project was filed; Don Knabe: $2,750, all given since 1994 when he was first elected and the project was filed; Gloria Molina: $12,300, $10,300 since the project was filed; and Zev Yaroslavsky: $18,000, $8,000 since the project was filed.

The resulting compromise dropped the number of homes in the project from 24,351 to 21,615, an 11% reduction. Newhall also pledged to add 2,200 homes for sale and rental to low- and moderate-income families.

One of the biggest benefits to the public, however, is the creation of a 4,000-acre park in the Santa Susana Mountains, nearly the size of Griffith Park.

That part of the compromise, which includes an agreement to fund the park with fees from homeowner association dues, will result in new hiking and horse trails within two years of approval. As the project is built out, the land will be given to the Santa Clarita Watershed Conservation Authority, a sister agency of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

The creation of the park goes a long way toward placating the conservancy and the city of Santa Clarita, officials with those two bodies said, so long as certain details related to control of the authority are resolved.

“We’re inching toward resolution,” said Joseph T. Edmiston, head of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. “The devil is in the details.”

While some Santa Clarita officials said the negotiations had resolved their concerns, others said more must be done before the city agrees not to oppose the project.

“If nothing else happens, we have to postpone” a vote, said Santa Clarita Councilwoman Jill Klajic. “A lot of issues haven’t been resolved.”

Ventura County officials and environmentalists said the local water company, which is owned and operated by Newhall Land & Farming, doesn’t have enough water to supply the project.

As a result, they fear the water company will have to tap into local ground water supplies, destroying water sources for the verdant lemon groves--some of which are owned by Newhall Land--downstream from the project. In all, tapping the ground water would ruin the Santa Clara, Southern California’s last wild river, they say.

The biggest concern surrounds multiple-year droughts. Although the water company, Valencia Water, can buy water during wet years, there’s no guarantee such supplies will be available after a prolonged dry spell, critics said. And that, in turn, might force the company to suck more ground water.

The Sierra Club has filed a complaint with the Public Utilities Commission over the issue, though no decision is expected before the end of the year.

“There’s just not enough water for the project. It’s fraught with uncertainty,” said Allan Cameron, one of the co-founders of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment.

Antonovich said he is happy with the changes in the overall project and supports it.

And Newhall Ranch and other Los Angeles County officials say they believe the opponents’ fear is unfounded.

For one thing, they said, the project will actually add water to Ventura County, since water for the new homes will be imported from outside sources. The resulting runoff from sprinklers, irrigation and other water uses will increase ground water levels.

Also, during negotiations, Newhall Ranch agreed to limit its ground water use to avoid harming water quality or wetlands.

In case of a drought, Valencia Water would supplement supplies not by draining local wells, but by buying more water from the massive State Water Project, Newhall officials said.

“There’s going to be no net additional use of ground water as a result of Newhall Ranch,” pledged Jim Harter, senior vice president for the project.

But some water critics contend that such promises are exactly the reason state legislators in 1995 required local government to examine water supplies for any project over 500 units.

At the time, Newhall Ranch was cited as one of 110 projects throughout the state that hadn’t identified a source of water beyond a generic intent to buy more state water.

Because the Newhall project was proposed before the state law passed, it doesn’t fall under the law’s requirements.

Even now, an initial study shows that few developers are complying with the new law.

“There’s a history in California for 150 years that if you create the demand, the water will follow,” said Randele Kanouse, a lobbyist for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, based in Oakland. “It’s the dirty little secret of the development industry.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Newhall Ranch Project

* Projected population: 60,000.

* Size: 12,000 acres.

* Number of units: 21,615

* Open space: 6,138 acres.

* Neighborhood parks: 246 acres.

* Other amenities: A lake, 200-acre business park and golf course.

* Schools: One high school, one middle school and five elementary schools.

* Projected completion date: 2023, 25 years after construction begins.


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