Newhall Ranch project prompts environmentalists’ suit


A coalition of environmental groups has filed suit against Los Angeles County, claiming the county’s decision to allow the development of a massive residential project along the Santa Clara River would harm the waterway, destroy wildlife habitat and despoil cultural sites.

According to the suit, filed Thursday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, the county would allow irreversible damage by approving the first phase of the Newhall Ranch development. Construction would also involve unearthing and desecrating American Indian burial sites and would threaten the California condor and the rare San Fernando Valley spineflower, the suit alleges.

“The project, as currently proposed, would harm the river in very significant ways and have substantial negative environmental impacts on water quality, on habitat and wildlife movements, and on greenhouse gas emissions, among other impacts,” the suit contends.

The completed project would eventually house some 60,000 residents along a six-mile stretch of the river. On Friday, a spokesperson for the developer denied the allegations.

The Santa Clara River flows from the San Gabriel Mountains near Acton to its confluence with the Pacific Ocean between Oxnard and Ventura, and is one of two major Southern California rivers still in a relatively natural state, according to environmentalists. Its watershed is home to a great diversity of very rare species, they say.

The L.A. County’ Board of Supervisors approved the first phase of the Newhall development, a tract of 1,444 homes, in February. Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose jurisdiction includes the Santa Clarita Valley, was joined by Don Knabe and Mark Ridley-Thomas in voting in favor of the project. Supervisors Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky abstained.

The litigation is being brought by the Friends of the Santa Clara River, Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Wishtoyo Foundation’s Ventura Coastkeeper program. The groups are requesting that the court review the legality of the county’s approval process.

County officials generally do not comment on pending litigation, but Antonovich has said in the past that all the environmental concerns of the project had been addressed by the appropriate agencies, and he described the Newhall project as potentially becoming “an asset to the Santa Clarita Valley.”

Newhall Ranch was first approved by supervisors in 2003 after nearly seven years of debate but then became mired in legal challenges.

Marlee Lauffer, a spokeswoman for Newhall Land Development Inc., the company that proposed Newhall Ranch, said her company was disappointed that the lawsuit had been filed, but it wasn’t unexpected “based on the litigious nature of the opponents.”

“Over the years, these groups, or the activists affiliated with them, have filed numerous unsuccessful lawsuits,” Lauffer said in an email. “The Newhall Ranch Specific Plan has prevailed in court, and we are confident that Landmark Village will as well.”

Lauffer insisted that all the issues in the lawsuit had been “thoroughly reviewed and analyzed by a variety of public agencies over the last several years” and that past allegations made by the interest groups had been repeatedly disproved.

“The lawsuit is entirely without merit,” Lauffer said.