Homes project at a crossroads

Times Staff Writers

Hundreds of thousands of drivers daily thread their way through the spaghetti-like interchange of Interstate 5 and the Antelope Valley Freeway, and some may well recall its spectacular collapse in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Few, however, probably are aware of the six-year development battle raging over the jagged ridgelines cradled between the intersecting freeways at the Newhall Pass.

Its location near one of the state’s major north-south arteries, as well as its size and standing as a major swath of open space between the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys, have set it apart from other land-use squabbles.

Las Lomas, a proposed community of 5,553 homes and 2.3 million square feet of commercial space, lies in unincorporated Los Angeles County territory.

Developer Dan Palmer wants the city of Los Angeles to annex the land so his project -- opposed by the neighboring city of Santa Clarita -- can move forward.


The effort faces a key test Wednesday, when the Los Angeles City Council is scheduled to debate whether it should stop work on the Las Lomas proposal.

As with many of the other developments proposed in the Los Angeles area, the project raises thorny legal questions and pits housing creation and job growth against quality-of-life issues.

Opponents say Las Lomas would amount to typical sprawl that would increase traffic, destroy a rare wildlife corridor and place a burden on already overtaxed Los Angeles city services, including water, power and sewer systems.

Palmer disagrees. Likening his project to a Toyota Prius, the builder says it would be an innovative, self-contained community where residents could live and work and is designed to reduce traffic and generate enough money to pay for its own services.

The builder is pushing for annexation so he can access the city’s water supply and construct more residences than the county would allow.

Council members representing opposite ends of the San Fernando Valley have tackled the project, which began in 2002, in markedly different ways.

On one side is Councilman Greig Smith, who represents the northwest Valley. Smith filed a motion recently urging the council to stop work on Las Lomas. The councilman also sent a letter last fall to neighborhood councils in the Valley asking them to oppose the project, and he drafted a seven-page white paper arguing that it would strain city services.

Palmer’s consultants wrote a point-by-point rebuttal saying in part that Smith relied on information he knew was out of date. Smith’s office rejects the assertion, saying it has documents to back up its statements.

“The benefits are greatly outweighed by the impacts,” Smith said.

On the other side is Councilman Richard Alarcon, who represents the northeast Valley, and who proposed last year that Palmer be allowed to go forward with the project but be required to shoulder the processing costs, which he has agreed to do. The city attorney has determined that planners are legally required to finish work on an extensive environmental study they started in 2002.

“The question for the City Council is not whether you support Las Lomas or not, because if that’s the question it would go down in flames,” Alarcon said. “The question is if the actions to date require the city to keep processing the application.”

For the last six years, processing of the project has largely taken place behind closed doors, as myriad Los Angeles city agencies tried to sort out how to provide services to the estimated 15,000 people who could live in Las Lomas, as well as businesses housed in commercial space that would be double the amount in the entire city of Carson.

At the same time, Palmer, with the help of numerous consultants and lobbyists, has sought to reassure business and residents’ groups that Las Lomas would not strain city services because he plans to build new infrastructure on site, including a police and a fire station, a water treatment plant and schools.

“Las Lomas is a step forward, not a step backward,” Palmer said in an interview. “It’s not a compromise of something of value but rather is a restoration.”

Palmer’s consultants estimate that the project would generate 9,000 jobs and contribute $1.3 billion a year to the economy, of which $22 million would flow into city coffers. About 750 of the 5,500 or so homes would be priced for moderate-income earners.

But questions remain about how many schools would be needed -- and even which districts would run them. Las Lomas representatives want the development to join the Los Angeles Unified School District, while Santa Clarita-area officials expect that the site would remain in their school districts, even if Los Angeles annexes the land.

The superintendent of the Newhall School District said the project would probably require at least three elementary schools. Palmer has proposed building one large school for kindergarten through eighth grade and a high school.

Although Palmer’s group garnered support from unions and business groups, many neighborhood organizations on both sides of the ridgeline, as well as the city of Santa Clarita and county, state and federal representatives, have taken a stand against Las Lomas, citing traffic congestion, environmental protection and public safety concerns.

“It is so grossly incompatible with its surroundings, it violates every principle of urban planning,” said Lisa Hardy, Santa Clarita’s planning manager.

About 60% of the project site is steep, with slopes at a 50% grade or more. This would require the developer to move about 20 million cubic yards of dirt -- the equivalent of piling earth 10 feet high across Pasadena’s business district -- to build a mesa where the housing and businesses would sit.

But Palmer’s representatives say mountainous terrain is not unusual for development in the county, adding that the area is not unspoiled.

There is a vehicle storage yard at the site, which also has been used for paint-ball activities.

“This is not land that has not been touched by human hands,” said Matthew N. Klink, a principal for Cerrell Associates, a consultant working for Palmer.

Environmentalists disagree, saying the area is an irreplaceable wildlife corridor.

Also the subject of intense disagreement is how much traffic the project would add to the area’s already crowded roads. Santa Clarita planners estimate that Las Lomas would generate 75,000 trips a day.

Some of these vehicles would flow onto Interstate 5, which the California Department of Transportation predicts will see a 65% increase in average daily traffic by 2030 on the portion extending from the 210 Freeway to the Kern County line.

“That area is geographically not hospitable to transportation,” said Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition, an advocacy group. “There are so many untenable, unrealistic issues here . . . and so much magical thinking.”

But Palmer said that developments approved north of Las Lomas, such as the 21,000-home Newhall Ranch and the 23,000-residence Centennial, would generate far more traffic. He added that he would pay for $150 million in traffic improvements, including widening roads and offering a shuttle bus to transit lines in the San Fernando Valley.

Experts say traffic generation largely depends on when businesses, retailers and grocery stores move into the area. That often can be years after the first residents locate there. Jennifer Wolch, director of the USC Center for Sustainable Cities, said the number of jobs proposed by Palmer -- a figure roughly equal to all those who work at Universal City for the theme park and the studios combined -- is ambitious.

Palmer said the Interstate 5 corridor is considered an ideal place for businesses to locate because of its proximity to unused industrial space, a qualified workforce and transportation hubs.

Questions also have arisen about ownership of the land, but the builder has documentation confirming that a second owner who holds half of the property has agreed to sell it to him, according to Carlyle Hall, an attorney who represents Palmer.

Also unresolved are complex issues concerning whether the city of Los Angeles can annex the property.

Even with the challenges posed by the project’s location, its rugged topography and vociferous opposition, some opponents expect that the site will be developed someday.

“No matter the negatives, this may go ahead in some form,” said Mel Mitchell, president of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council, which opposes the project. “If you look at growth projections for Southern California, affordable housing will be in demand, so this project might go ahead; and if it does, we want to influence it.”