Following Los Angeles County’s approval last month of the long-contentious Newhall Ranch development, opponents have asked a court to halt the project until additional environmental issues are remedied.
The petition, filed last week in L.A. Superior Court by Friends of the Santa Clara River and the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE), argues that the Board of Supervisors should not have approved a revised environmental impact report and permits for two of Newhall’s five “villages” at its July 18 meeting.
The development “would harm the [Santa Clara] River in very significant ways, and have substantial negative environmental impacts on water quality, on aquatic and riparian habitat, on wildlife movements, on greenhouse gas emissions, and on Native American cultural resources,” the petition says. “The board and county abused their discretion in approving the projects.”
Newhall Land and Farming Co., a subsidiary of Five Point Holdings, is also named in the petition.
The board’s approval of the Landmark and Mission villages at Newhall Ranch followed more than two decades of debate over the planned community, which would provide up to 21,500 homes in the Santa Clarita Valley. The environmental groups’ legal challenge represents the last significant hurdle before construction may begin.
An environmental impact report was completed in 2011, but courts later found the developer hadn’t provided sufficient evidence that the project would not affect greenhouse gas emissions and raised concerns about threats to a native fish, the unarmored threespine stickleback.
In 2016 the developer revised its environmental impact report. The supervisors approved the revised portions and authorized development of Newhall’s first two villages.
In so doing, the lawsuit claims, the county failed to fulfill its obligations under the California Environmental Quality Act. The environmental groups argue that the revised analysis was too narrow and didn’t take into account substantial recent changes, including California’s drought and the expansion of a nearby landfill.
Five Point has dubbed the project “Net Zero Newhall,” saying it will offset all greenhouse gases it generates. In their court petition, opponents say the developer cannot guarantee zero net emissions and should take additional steps to mitigate the gases.
An additional concern of the environmental groups is the development’s impact on water. The petition says the area’s water table has dropped approximately 90 feet since 2005 because of drought and overuse.
“This drop is a strong indication that the local water supplies are not sufficient for homes and businesses already in the area,” it says.
At the same time, the Legislature is considering a bill that would consolidate the Castaic Lake Water Agency and the Newhall County Water District.
Proponents say the bill would reduce duplication and benefit ratepayers. Opponents, including the groups that filed last week’s lawsuit, say the merger was negotiated with little transparency and is a ploy to enable the new development to draw on already depleted water sources.
“The bill works in Trojan Horse fashion,” Lynne Plambeck, president of the environmental group known as SCOPE, and former Castaic water board candidate Stacy Fortner wrote in an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee this month.
“Newhall Land & Farming needs surface water and groundwater to make its mega development happen, and this bill will shore up those supplies,” they wrote.
State Sen. Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita), the bill’s author, said it has nothing to do with Newhall Ranch. “It’s in the best interest of rate payers and the best interest of the environment,” he said.
Wilk added that the consolidated agency can achieve economies of scale, more efficiently manage water resources, and likely compete more successfully for grants.
Through a spokesperson, Five Point Holdings declined to comment. The company has repeatedly said it has ample water for the project and Chief Executive Emile Haddad said last month that Newhall Ranch would “set the new standard” for development with its plan for addressing greenhouse gas emissions.
Stephanie Pincetl, a professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said the ultimate decision on whether the project moves forward will depend on how broadly a judge interprets the developer’s obligations under the California Environmental Quality Act.
“Newhall … complied with the letter of the law,” she said. “It’ll depend on the judge and if the judge is willing to look at the larger set of impacts and not rule in a very narrow way.”