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As a final vote nears on the mammoth Newhall Ranch housing project, the one remaining issue could become the . . . Century’s Last Major Water Fight

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 approving a project.

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 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, who now supports the project, 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, 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, a reduction of 11%. Newhall also pledged to add 2,200 homes for sale and rental to low-and moderate-income families.

In addition, a 4,000-acre park in the Santa Susana Mountains nearly the size of Griffith Park would be included in the project.

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, 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 conservancy. “The devil is in the details.”

Although 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.

Ventura County 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 that the water company will have to tap into local ground water supplies, destroying water sources for the verdant lemon groves downstream from the project and ruining the Santa Clara, Southern California’s last wild river.

The biggest concern surrounds multiple-year droughts. Although the water company, Valencia Water, can buy water during wet years, there’s no guarantee that such supplies will be available after a dry spell, critics said.

“There’s just not enough water for the project,” said Allan Cameron of the environmental group Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment.

But Newhall Ranch and Los Angeles County officials believe that opponents’ fear is unfounded.

They said the project will actually add more water to Ventura County because water for the new homes will be imported from outside sources. The resulting runoff will increase ground-water levels.

In case of a drought, Valencia Water would supplement supplies not by draining local wells, but by buying water from the 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 in 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 comply 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. “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

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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