Los Angeles County moved toward approval Tuesday of the Newhall Ranch development, the largest in county history, even as supervisors expressed concern about the developer's alleged concealment of an endangered species on the tract.
Over the objections of activists and Ventura County officials who warned that Newhall Ranch could foul the waters of Southern California's last pristine river, supervisors directed their planning staff to draw up final environmental documents that they could formally approve in May.
It is the second time Los Angeles supervisors have backed the Newhall project, consisting of 21,600 homes on 12,000 acres straddling the Santa Clara River in the northwest corner of the county.
After the initial approval in 1999, Ventura County and environmental groups sued to block the development. A Kern County judge ruled that the environmental documents needed to be rewritten to address whether there is enough water available, among other matters.
The rewritten documents were on the table Tuesday, with Newhall contending it had found additional water supplies for the 70,000 people expected to live in the development.
Despite giving initial approval to the project, supervisors registered concern about Newhall's alleged failure to disclose the full number of San Fernando Valley spineflowers on its land. The district attorney's office recently settled a probe into the matter by requiring Newhall to set aside a 64-acre spineflower preserve.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the incident has made him reconsider his initial support for Newhall. "I'm always troubled when a developer doesn't level with us," said Yaroslavsky, adding that he was reconsidering a previous vote in support of Newhall.
Yaroslavsky asked that Newhall allow supervisors and county staff to inspect all of the documents prepared by its consultants, who had searched the site for endangered species. The developer, which contends it has been forthright about the spineflower, quickly agreed.
Then Yaroslavsky, who had also proposed that 1,100 new acres of Newhall land in Ventura County be preserved as part of the deal, abstained from the 4-0 vote that directed county staff to prepare the project's approval. Supervisor Mike Antonovich, in whose district the Newhall project is located, had already formally scaled back the project by 730 homes to make room for the initial 64-acre spineflower preserve.
In hours of testimony, supporters of the project argued it would create critically needed housing and jobs while opponents labeled it poorly planned sprawl that would sap water supplies.
"The L.A. metro area's population is expected to grow by the size of two Chicagos," said Russell "Rusty" Hammer, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. "The Newhall Ranch, while large, is only a dent in meeting our long-term needs."
Opponents countered that the development would despoil the environment, and said that the Los Angeles supervisors, who have accepted more than $130,000 in campaign contributions from Newhall, should recuse themselves from voting on it.
If supervisors give final approval to the project in May, the matter will go before the Kern County judge who threw out the initial environmental report. If that judge signs off on the new paperwork, opponents have vowed to sue again to block Newhall from submitting street plans that would trigger construction.