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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Greens Fight to Save River From Developers

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Five environmental groups claim in Superior Court that one of the biggest residential development projects ever approved in California will permanently damage the Santa Clara River ecosystem.

The Friends of the Santa Clara River and others claim Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and project developer Newhall Land and Farming violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and state planning, zoning and subdivision laws.

The 12,000-acre Landmark Village at Newhall Ranch will house 60,000 people in 1,411 dwelling units - 1,136 of them "multi-family units" - and will have 1 million square feet of mixed commercial uses, according to the complaint. It will also have an elementary school, a 16-acre park, a fire station, and other amenities.

"The project is located adjacent to, and partially within the current floodplain of, the Santa Clara River (the 'River'), the last river in Southern California that is still in a mostly natural state," according to the complaint.

"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."

Joining as plaintiffs are the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Wishtoyo Foundation and its Ventura Coastkeeper Program.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved the general plan for Landmark Village in 2003, but the project was delayed because the original applicant, LandSource Communities, filed for bankruptcy in 2007. After emerging from bankruptcy 3 years later, it submitted a revised version of the environmental impact report in September 2011.

The Board approved the project last week and certified the revised final impact report by 3-0 vote. The project has been around in planning and proposal stages since the 1980s.

The environmental groups claim the county's certification of an environmental impact report violated CEQA.

The Santa Clara River is a popular site for fishing and hiking. Streams twist through thickets of trees, grasslands and sagebrush with the San Gabriel Mountains in the background against an often-smoggy sky.

"The Santa Clara River is in a relatively natural state. In contrast to other major Southern California rivers such as the Los Angeles or San Gabriel, the Santa Clara is not confined by extensive levees, impounded by dams, or lined with concrete," the complaint states.

In 2005 the nonprofit group American Rivers named the Santa Clara "one of the nation's most endangered rivers," due to extensive pollution from chlorides and threats from development projects.

"From an urban planning standpoint, there is no reason to build in the river area," attorney Dean Wallraff, with Advocates for the Environment, told Courthouse News in a telephone interview.

"The project was barely approved, and likely because the county is typically on the side of development. They see revenue, and though there's nothing wrong with that, the problem is that they will be channelizing the river in order to build.

"There are just so many other better places where they could build this project."

Wallraff said the project inevitably will confront water supply problems.

"Their environmental plan calls for pumping groundwater from the alluvial aquifer, which is a finite resource," he said. "There are many inconsistencies with the plan on the analysis of available water.


"According to their simulations, the project will have no effect on the river. The problem is that Newhall owns the company doing the water analyses, and they have the money to hire experts to tweak the results in their favor.

"We don't have the money to reproduce their findings, but we can't help but question their results.

"What we can say is that, from a global perspective, there's just not enough water to support this project."

Marlee Lauffer, vice president of marketing and communications for Newhall Land, disagreed.

"While we are disappointed that the lawsuit was filed, it was not unexpected based on the litigious nature of the opponents," she told CNS in an email exchange.

"All of the issues in the lawsuit have been thoroughly reviewed and analyzed by a variety of public agencies over the last several years," Lauffer wrote. "Their allegations have been repeatedly disproven and the lawsuit is entirely without merit."

Newhall is a Delaware-based land management company best known for planning and developing Valencia, Calif. It is a subsidiary of Lennar Corp., the second-largest home builder in the country.

According to the 2007 project description, Landmark Village project will be "approximately 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles" on land that now is primarily agricultural.

The plaintiffs say the environmental impact report failed to "properly analyze" how the project will increase water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and improperly concluded that it will not significantly harm plant and animal life.

"The EIR's conclusion that the project will have a less than significant effect on wildlife movement is not supported by substantial evidence," the complaint states. "On the contrary, the project will result in a significant, unmitigated impact on wildlife movement due to, among other things, the conversion of miles of tributary streams to buried storm drains, the constriction of the Santa Clara River channel and floodplain, the elimination of natural vegetation and plant communities, [and] the construction of the project."

The Wishtoyo Foundation, which promotes Chumash Indian culture, says the development will threaten land and animals that are sacred to the Chumash and Tataviam Tribes. The project area include lands that the Chumash and Tataviam used for villages, graveyards and religious ceremonies, according to the complaint.

"The project area's development envelope - including the area that will be affected by excavation, earthmoving, and other disturbance authorized by the project - thus contains numerous Tataviam and Chumash burial sites, sacred grounds, village sites, and unearthed cultural artifacts such as beads, art, tools, musical instruments, and jewelry," the complaint states.

The project also will harm the critically endangered California condor, the environmentalists say.

"The problem is that the development will increase trash, and condors eat trash if they find it, which is obviously bad for them," Wallraff said.

The complaint states: "For the region's Native Americans, the condor holds a very special place in the universe, possessing great cultural and religious significance. It is one of the most important and irreplaceable historic and cultural resources in the project area for the Tataviam and Chumash People.

"The condor's visible and unseen presence in the project area, whether flying overhead, foraging for food, roosting in a tree, or cleaning itself near the river, are integral component of the sacredness of Chumash sacred grounds, cultural sites, burial sites, prayers, and ceremonies."

The plaintiffs say the environmental impact report failed to include sacred sites on its surveys and failed to protect the sites from destruction.

"Many of the Tribes' burial sites and cultural resources are not identified in the limited archeological survey cited to in the EIR, and thus the EIR did not set forth mitigation measures that would preserve these Native American historical and cultural resources in place during project construction," the complaint states. "Despite a letter from Chumash ceremonial elder Mati Waiya alerting the County about the project's impacts to Native American historical resources, cultural resources, and religious practices from the project's impacts to the condor, the EIR does not identify, analyze, or mitigate impacts to Native American historical resources, cultural practices, and religious practices."

The revised final EIR, which the Board approved, violated CEQA guidelines that drafts be available in their entirety to the general public, and understandable by an average reader, the plaintiffs say. They claim the County ignored extensive input from environmental groups, government agencies, and people.

"The County failed to respond adequately to comments submitted by petitioners, other members of the public, and other agencies. Instead, the responses given to numerous comments regarding the project's impacts on water supply, water quality, climate change, air quality, biological resources, cultural resources, traffic, and public safety, mitigation measures, and alternatives are conclusory, evasive, confusing, or otherwise non-responsive, contrary to the requirements of CEQA," the complaint states.

"In addition, the County failed to provide an adequate rationale for rejecting alternatives to the project proposed by petitioners.

"By failing to provide adequate responses to public comments and proposed alternatives, the County failed to proceed in the manner required by law."

The plaintiffs seek writ of mandate ordering the Board to revoke its approval for the project, rescind its certification of the EIR, and stopping construction or other work on the project.

"Ideally, we hope to settle with the developers outside of court, and get the development moved out of the floodplain," Wallraff said. "There's so much that cannot be forced under CEQA."

Lauffer said she was confident Newhall would prevail in court.

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

But Wallraff said: "The houses will be built 1 foot above the floodplain near the San Gabriel Mountains, which have the highest record rainfall ever: 26 inches in 24 hours. Anyone living in the floodplain could be flooded out within the next fifty years.

"Then there's the impact on traffic. The project will just dump more cars into a traffic situation that is already terrible, because most of the people who live there won't work there. They'll commute to L.A.

"It will just be a nightmare."

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