Supervisors OK 21,000-Home Development


Los Angeles County approved the largest planned development in its history Tuesday, a massive new suburb straddling Southern California’s last wild river.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the 21,000-home Newhall Ranch project which, when completed, will create a city with a population the size of Huntington Park on the banks of the Santa Clara River just east of the Ventura County border.

Moments after the vote, Ventura County supervisors vowed a full-scale, old-fashioned water war in court. They said the project, located within an eighth of a mile of the Ventura County line and an important citrus growing region, would suck the fertile Santa Clara Valley dry.


Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, in whose district construction will take place, said the project will not harm local water supplies.

“This project is unique and innovative,” said Antonovich. “We have reduced the impact of grading and traffic.”

Opponents said the action Tuesday highlighted California’s long-standing practice of approving development without an identified source of water.

“We’ll have to go to war over water,” said Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long. “I’m not very happy.”

The project has been winding its way toward Tuesday’s approval since it was proposed in 1994 by Newhall Land & Farming Co., the cattle and ranching operation that, since its founding in 1883, has controlled much of the land in northern Los Angeles County.

In July, Antonovich won over many detractors by ordering a series of changes in the project, including a reduction in size from 24,351 to 21,615 homes. Even with the decrease, the project is nearly 10 times what is allowed by the county’s general plan, its growth blueprint.


Antonovich also worked out a compromise to create a public park out of 4,000 acres in the Santa Susana Mountains. The park will be owned by the Santa Clarita Watershed Conservation Authority, a sister agency to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and supported by fees paid by homeowners in the new development.

The project also includes 2,200 units of affordable housing for rental and sale for low- and moderate-income families. Finally, the local school district worked out an agreement under which the developer will pay nearly twice the fees normally paid to fund new school buildings--a deal worth as much as $150 million through the completion of the project in 2023.

“The community will benefit considerably from this development,” said Antonovich, who, like the four other Los Angeles County supervisors, has received considerable political donations from Newhall Land and its officers.

Antonovich has received $69,825 in contributions over the years, including more than $14,000 since the project was filed in 1994; Yvonne Brathwaite Burke has been given $33,150, including $11,750 since 1994; Don Knabe has received $2,750, all since he first ran for office in 1994; Gloria Molina, $12,300, including $10,300 since the project was filed; and Zev Yaroslavsky, $18,000 total, $8,000 since the project was filed.

Despite the new parkland and addition of affordable homes, environmentalists were not placated. Instead, they focused on water-- both too much and too little of it-- raising the specter of drought and even floods from increased runoff.

Both sides agree that there is currently not enough water to supply the entire project. Newhall officials say they will buy more water as it is needed. Opponents believe the project will be forced to dip into ground water supplies that currently provide water to the verdant citrus and lemon groves across the line in Ventura County.


That in turn could result in damage to the quality and quantity of the 400,000 tons of fruit produced in the region annually, they said.

Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn said the company’s promises are not good enough.

“The water simply does not exist,” he said.

But Antonovich said the approval of the Newhall Land & Farming project had ironclad safeguards to prevent damage to the region’s water supply.

“The last time I heard an ‘ironclad’ proposal was when they built the Titanic,” said John Steffen, a 29-year resident of Santa Clarita. “It’s not ironclad. It depends on nature; it depends on rainfall.”

Before each new neighborhood can be built, developers will be required to prove that they can supply enough water without harming ground water levels. In addition, an association composed of the area’s local water retailers will provide annual reports on ground water levels to assist Los Angeles County in its appraisals.

Los Angeles County planners said they would not approve the development of a new tract unless it could prove that there would be no damage to ground water levels. However, they acknowledged that after the homes have been built, they will have little control over pumping levels. A lawsuit against the local water company would be the only recourse to stop over-pumping should it occur, they said.

“I don’t think it’ll happen, but I’ll be honest: We don’t have control over another agency,” said John Schwarze, head of current planning for the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning.


Newhall Land officials praised Tuesday’s vote and said they had no plans to pump beyond safe levels of ground water. Some noted that Newhall owns citrus groves in Ventura County.

“Now we’re turning our attention to the construction of a great community,” said Jim Harter, senior vice president for the project. “I really hope there won’t be a lawsuit. It’s unnecessary.”

That hope seemed misguided Tuesday.

The Sierra Club has already filed a complaint with the state Public Utilities Commission, alleging that the project will create water shortages.

In addition, Ventura County supervisors said they had already begun taking depositions from water experts to file in their own lawsuit. No lawsuit can be filed until the county has officially adopted the environmental documents surrounding the new development, a process that county officials said would take two to three months.

Los Angeles County planners also must work out final details for some parts of the agreement. Santa Clarita city officials, who are now on record as opposing the project, said they will wait to see if all their concerns are addressed before deciding whether to change their stance.

“They’ve made big steps in the right direction,” said Jeff Lambert, head of Santa Clarita’s Department of Planning and Building Services.


Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy officials said they need to work out final issues before signing off on the project.


A New Suburb

June 1994: Newhall Land & Farming Co. proposes transforming 19 square miles of ranchland near Magic Mountain into a community of almost 70,000 people, making it the largest single development in Los Angeles County history.

Dec. 17, 1997: The Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission gives the project its unanimous approval. Decision is appealed by Ventura County and the cities of Santa Clarita, Santa Paula and Moorpark.

July 28, 1998: The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors orders Newhall Land to scale back the project from 24,351 homes and condominiums to 21,615, an 11% reduction. In addition, 2,200 homes will be offered for sale and rental to low- and moderate-income families and building will be prohibited within 100 feet of the banks of the Santa Clara River.

Nov. 24, 1998: Project is unanimously approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Ventura County officials vow to challenge the decision in court.


Newhall Ranch

* Projected population: 60,000

* Size: 12,000 acres

* Number of units: 21,615

* Open space: 6,138 acres

* Neighborhood parks: 248 acres

Source: Newhall Ranch Co.