Mojave Desert Housing Project Advances

Tejon Ranch from the Tehachapi Crest, with Frazier Mountain in the background. (RangerX via Wikipedia)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – A Los Angeles County commission on Wednesday approved a 12,000-acre housing project to be built on the edge of the Mojave Desert in the undeveloped wilderness, much to the dismay of environmental advocates who say the project’s footprint on the ecosystem will change the face of the region.

Developer Tejon Ranch Co., one of the largest private land owners in the state, says the project to build 19,333 homes is meeting the demand for housing in the region.

Built on Tejon Ranch’s 270,000-acres of private property near Interstate 5, The Centennial Project will include not only homes, but parks, schools, and a sheriff’s department – a small city unto itself, according to the developers. Located about 40 miles away from the nearest commuter rail service, the proposed site is about 50 miles south of Bakersfield in Kern County and 60 miles north of Los Angeles.

About a decade ago, Tejon Ranch agreed to conserve approximately 90 percent of its property in the area in an agreement with several environmental groups.

Nonetheless, the project’s opponents say the remote location will add to traffic and pollution, as well as put a strain on the region’s resources. Environmental advocates called the area the last undisturbed section of Southern California, and said the county’s approval of the project will hurt native plant and wildlife.

Nick Jensen, Southern California Conservation Analyst with the California Native Plant Society, said the project is in a unique location, at the foot of the Tehachapi Mountains and in the Mojave Desert.

“Our primary issue is the potential destruction of 5,000 acres of native grassland and wildflower habitat,” Jensen said in an interview before the meeting with the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning Commission. “Some of the finest wildflower fields and perennial native grassland that’s left in the state of California occur in this project site and that’s just destruction we can’t stand for.”

In addition, because the project site is remote, without fire access roads and nearby fire stations, it could be at high fire risk – something Tejon Ranch’s attorney, Jennifer Hernandez, acknowledged at Wednesday’s meeting.

“We will come to a site, build the roads and the fire station,” Hernandez said.

J.P. Rose, urban wildlands attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, called the commission’s approval “one of the most environmentally destructive sprawl project in recent memory.”

“Centennial will pave over thousands of acres of irreplaceable wildlands, clog L.A.’s already congested freeways and worsen the air pollution burden that our communities suffer,” said Rose in a statement after the vote.

Rose added in a phone interview the commission’s recommendation should be rejected by the county’s board of supervisors, based on the long-term sustainability goals set by Los Angeles County.

Supporters of the Centennial Project say the community and construction will create jobs and address the Golden State’s housing shortage.

According to a study published earlier this year by the nonprofit California Housing Partnership, Los Angeles County needs to build about 600,000 new affordable housing units to address its housing gap – and the California Department of Housing and Community Development says the state will need to build 1.8 million additional homes by 2025 to keep up with projected household growth.

Wednesday’s approval by the Department of Regional Planning Commission marked the fifth time the commissioners had revisited the project. In previous reviews, the commission pushed the developers to boost the number of local hires involved in the project and the amount of affordable housing available.

The commissioners also pressed for more information about the project’s transportation options and medical care facilities – such as a proposed “micro-hospital.” The developers said they don’t yet know the exact size of the project’s medical facility, but commissioners report it’s along the lines of an emergency clinic.

Other questions that remain include the number of affordable housing units that will be built, and in what categories – very low, low and middle income. The developers will have to draft those numbers with another county agency.

The developers’ next step is approval from the county board of supervisors.

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