Questions Surround Newhall Project

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County supervisors will consider granting final approval to the 21,600-home Newhall Ranch project Tuesday, nearly three years after a judge forced the developer to prove it has enough water for the massive subdivision.

But some of the project's most serious complications spring from a different source -- the discovery on the site of the endangered San Fernando Valley spineflower and fallout from an investigation into the developer's alleged destruction of the plant.

In county government, details of the spineflower case have led to a disagreement over the trustworthiness of Newhall Land & Farming Co.'s latest environmental reports, which supervisors will consider Tuesday. County biologist Daryl Koutnik said the planning staff is comfortable with the documents, but the supervisors' ecological advisory committee doubts whether the company's new environmental reports are complete.

"We're not dealing with a company here that is willing to divulge its information," committee member Frank Hovore said at a January meeting. "So why should we believe this information is even credible?"

The discovery of the plant on the development site was announced in May 2000, a few days before Kern County Superior Court Judge Roger D. Randall temporarily blocked supervisors' initial approval of the project.

More recently, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office investigated allegations that the developer destroyed some spineflowers, but dropped its probe in February as part of a settlement with Newhall.

The company asserts it did nothing wrong.

But others are not convinced. In a letter to her Los Angeles County colleagues this month, Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long said public records provide "a clear picture of Newhall deliberately withholding spineflower discoveries from regulatory agencies, censoring consultant's conclusions made available to the public, and targeting spineflower colonies for destruction."

Others say the controversy has exposed flaws in Los Angeles County's environmental reporting procedures.

A state Assembly bill has been introduced to address the issue, and last week Supervisor Michael Antonovich introduced a motion to study changes locally.

If the supervisors are now wary of the system used to analyze Newhall Ranch, some opponents wonder why the board is considering a final vote on the project Tuesday.

Such problems pose new challenges for officials who were already dealing with complex issues stemming from the proposal.

Despite a series of lawsuits that complicated the water rights picture, Newhall believes it has developed one of the most detailed water supply plans ever, with water coming from four sources -- including purchases from a private company in Kern County, which critics see as a dangerous step toward privatization of California water.

Effect Reanalyzed

On Randall's orders, the company reanalyzed the project's effect on traffic, aquatic life and a wildlife corridor.

If supervisors sign off on the reports, they will still have to be approved by the Kern County court.

But the spineflower issue has provided new ammunition for critics who say that Newhall cannot be trusted to protect the fragile resources of the Santa Clarita Valley, one of Southern California's fastest-growing suburbs.

"People are saying, 'What else are these people not telling us?' " said Teresa Savaikie, a member of the group Friends of the Santa Clara River.

For Newhall, which has promised to create a preserve for the flowers as part of the settlement, the outcry is part of "a very concerted campaign on the part of a small group of people to make an issue of trust," spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer said.

"There have certainly been things that in retrospect we might have done differently," she said. "But never with any kind of intent."

The county advisory group, the Significant Ecological Area Technical Advisory Committee, is concerned that the new environmental reports were prepared by consultants hired by Newhall who were required to sign confidentiality agreements with the company.

The agreements forbid the consultants from discussing their findings with anyone, including government officials.

In the spineflower case, Newhall consultants who signed the agreements refused to be interviewed by state Department of Fish and Game investigators.

Citing such concerns, Ventura County -- which filed the 1998 lawsuit to delay the project -- has threatened a second legal action against Los Angeles County if the project is approved.

The Newhall Ranch property, which borders Ventura County on the west, caused officials there to fear that the project will encourage sprawl and overburden local roads and water supplies.

Santa Clarita environmentalists say the spineflower case is reminiscent of other controversies involving Newhall Land & Farming Co.

In 1991, a Newhall subsidiary pleaded no contest to charges of illegally altering the Santa Clara riverbed and jeopardizing the habitat of two endangered species, the least Bell's vireo songbird and the unarmored three-spined stickleback fish.

In a court settlement, the company agreed to pay $94,600 in fines and conduct $300,000 in habitat restoration.

In 2000, environmentalists alleged the company was using electronic noisemakers to scare away endangered birds so they would not be found during surveys.

Newhall contended the machines were not used during the surveys, but during construction, for the safety of the birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated the matter but declined to file charges.

Arroyo Toad

Questions about the spineflowers have led the advisory committee to doubt Newhall's assertion that another endangered species, the arroyo toad, has not been found on the Newhall Ranch property, Hovore said.

Because the frog has been found upstream and downstream of the development site on the Santa Clara River, the committee thinks the toad's presence within the project property is "likely," although Newhall's paid consultant did not find it there.

"We asked [the consultants] if there are arroyo toads [on the property] and they said, 'No, there are not,' " Hovore said at the meeting. "Well, how do we know they are telling the truth? They're under a confidentiality agreement."

County planner Lee Stark said Hovore's concerns were unfounded.

The documents under review need not go into so much detail, Stark said, because the company will have to conduct more in-depth surveys when it builds specific tracts on the property.

Lauffer said confidentiality agreements are common in the development industry and have no bearing on the reports.

"The whole issue has been blown so far out of proportion that it's ridiculous," she said. "All pertinent information is made public."

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