The sprawling Newhall Ranch development proposed for 12,000 acres along the Santa Clara River in northwest Los Angeles County is one of the largest single residential development projects ever contemplated in California. Newhall Ranch would create a city of more than 60,000 on a six-mile stretch of the river that is currently mostly rugged open space and agricultural land. As we have reported previously, on January 3, 2011, a coalition of five environmental and Native American groups filed suit against the California Department of Fish and Game over its approvals of permits for the project. On October 15, 2012, a Los Angeles Superior court rendered a decision requiring the Department (now the Department of Fish and Wildlife) to vacate its EIR certification and perform new analyses on several areas in which it is deficient. Earlier in 2012, a similar coalition had also filed lawsuits against Los Angeles County's approval of the first two Newhall Ranch Villages, Landmark Village and Mission Village. Both of these actions are described in the two following articles (see below).
Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), which must issue its own permit under the Clean Water Act, has moved closer to a final permit, termed a Record of Decision. The Corps has spent months in negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency over several outstanding issues involving the permit. FSCR is still hopeful that the final permit will eliminate its most egregious feature – the proposed filling with dirt of 110 acres of the Santa Clara River floodplain.
Newhall Ranch Project Dealt a Major Setback
In a tremendous win for the Santa Clara River, on October 15, 2012 a superior court judge confirmed a previous ruling that the California Department of Fish and Game's approvals for the enormous Newhall Ranch project in Los Angeles County violated state law in numerous, fundamental ways . The ruling deals a severe blow to the project, which would create a new town of 60,000 residents on the banks of the Santa Clara River just upstream of the Ventura County line.
A coalition of environmental and Native American groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Santa Clara River, Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment (SCOPE), Wishtoyo Foundation, Ventura Coastkeeper, and California Native Plant Society, challenged the Department of Fish and Game's (now known as the Department of Fish and Wildlife) Newhall Ranch approvals in January 2011. The comprehensive, 38-page ruling upholds the coalition's claims that the Department failed to adequately protect endangered species, including the San Fernando Valley spineflower, unarmored threespine stickleback, and southern California steelhead; improperly disregarded the project's contribution to climate change; failed to adequately identify and preserve in place Chumash and Tataviam cultural resources; and erroneously rejected less environmentally damaging alternative development plans.
Los Angeles County approved the overall plan for Newhall Ranch in 2003, but the project required major additional permits for river development and endangered species from the Department of Fish and Game. As a result of the court ruling, these permits must be invalidated.
The first two phases of Newhall Ranch were approved by Los Angeles County in 2011 and 2012. These phases depend on the Department's approvals, so they face an uncertain future now that these approvals have been reversed.
John Buse, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, summed it up this way: "Government agencies have so far failed to halt this poorly conceived plan for massive development in and around the Santa Clara River's floodplain. The Santa Clara is a gem, but is one of the most endangered rivers in America. The ruling gives us hope that we can preserve southern California's last major free-flowing river."
After the decision was released, newspaper articles have reported that the Department is considering an appeal
Environmental Groups Sue Newhall Ranch
Press Release March 23, 2012
Lawsuit Filed Against L.A. County Approval of Massive Newhall Ranch Project
Development in Floodplain Would Devastate Wildlife Habitat, Hurt Cultural Resources
LOS ANGELES— A coalition of five public-interest groups today sued Los Angeles County in Superior Court over its approval of permits for the first phase of the sprawling Newhall Ranch development — one of the largest single residential development projects ever contemplated in California — which is proposed for 12,000 acres along the Santa Clara River in northwest L.A. County. Newhall Ranch would create a city of more than 60,000 on a six-mile stretch of the river that is currently rugged open space and farmland by channeling the county's last mostly free-flowing river.
The construction approved by the county on Feb. 23 would require filling of the Santa Clara River's floodplain on a large scale; channelizing over three miles of river and converting many tributary streams to concrete-lined channels; unearth and desecrate American Indian burial sites, sacred places and cultural natural resources such as the California condor; and threaten the San Fernando Valley spineflower — a species found in only one other location on the planet.
"It's appalling that L.A. County would be so reckless with the last free-flowing river in the region," said Ron Bottorff with the Friends of the Santa Clara River. "This area has lost all but 3 percent of its historic river woodlands; the county's approval would replace some of the finest riparian areas remaining anywhere in Southern California with ugly strip malls and housing we don't need."
The Santa Clara River is one of two major Southern California rivers remaining in a relatively natural state. It flows for about 116 miles from its headwaters on the north slope of the San Gabriel Mountains near Acton to its confluence with the Pacific Ocean between Oxnard and Ventura; its watershed is home to a great diversity of very rare species, among them the unarmored threespine stickleback fish, California condor, least Bell's vireo, southwestern willow flycatcher, California red-legged frog, arroyo toad, southern steelhead trout and San Fernando Valley spineflower. Wildlands of the Santa Clara River provides a full accounting of rare environmental resources of this precious landscape.
Said the Sierra Club's Jennifer Robinson: "The Sierra Club has fought throughout the nation and internationally for floodplain and river protection. As part of this national focus, it is only fitting that the 50,000-member Angeles Chapter should continue its longstanding battle to protect Los Angeles County's last free-flowing river, the Santa Clara River, with legal opposition to a project that will be built almost entirely in its floodplain."
"Developing in a river floodplain is never a good idea," said Ileene Anderson, biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "We should protect our precious water resources, not destroy them."
The suit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court under the California Environmental Quality Act, and will include additional "Map Act" and "Plan Consistency" issues. Brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Santa Clara River, Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment (SCOPE), and Wishtoyo Foundation and its Ventura Coastkeeper program, the suit will ask the court to review the legality of the county's approval process in order to protect this last remaining river resource area.
Los Angeles County approved an overall plan for the Newhall Ranch development in 2003. After promising groundbreaking for the project in 2000, approval of this first phase some 12 years later is the first authorization permitting construction. Plans have been slowed by the bankruptcy of LandSource Communities Development, the predecessor of Newhall Ranch's current developer. CalPERS, California's public pension fund, lost $970 million of state employees' investment in Newhall Ranch with the LandSource bankruptcy. Now, with the infusion of cash and majority ownership by several out-of-state hedge funds, investors are again looking to move forward on this destructive and questionable proposal. "Before a single house has been built, Newhall Ranch has already cost California's taxpayers and workforce, including the county's own staff, nearly a billion dollars of lost pension funds," said Lynne Plambeck, president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment. "Although the state will never recover any of the largest single loss ever suffered by CalPERS, and will spend millions more in public monies to build roads, bridges and other infrastructure to serve this project, the county has once again endorsed this same development that will threaten the region's water supply, worsen air pollution and cause further gridlock on our highways."
"The project will impart irreversible impacts to the ecological integrity and water quality of the Santa Clara River watershed and Ventura's coastal waters, harming the wellbeing of watershed residents and visitors for years to come," said Jason Weiner, associate director and staff attorney for the Wishtoyo Foundation's Ventura Coastkeeper Program.
"The impacts to hundreds upon hundreds of our burial sites, and natural cultural resources such as the California condor that are such a vital component of our culture and religious practices, will be devastating and irreversible," said Mati Waiya, a Chumash ceremonial elder and executive director of the Wishtoyo Foundation.
"The project information was substantially changed at the last minute just prior to the final hearing before the county supervisors," said attorney Dean Wallraff. "The public and the decision-makers should have a document they can read through in a straightforward way to understand the environmental impacts of the project, and this isn't it."
General Comments on the Santa Clara River
The Santa Clara is Southern California's last major "wild river". There are few levees and only one diversion dam. The river channel retains its dynamic nature. For most of its length, it flows through natural and agricultural landscapes, including some of the best remaining riparian woodland in the southland. In contrast, the Los Angeles and Santa Ana Rivers, which rival the Santa Clara in size, were long ago largely converted to concrete channels.
The headwaters of the river originate in the Angeles National Forest , east of Soledad Canyon, which parallels Route 14 leading from Los Angeles to Palmdale. After flowing down Soledad canyon through steep-walled Soledad Canyon, the river reaches a small plain - the Santa Clarita Valley. Here the new city of Santa Clarita forms the only major urban stretch. Then the Santa Clara returns to a narrower valley. Flanked by some of the best remaining riparian woodland in Southern California, it crosses into Ventura County, where it flows over broad sand and gravel deposits past extensive citrus orchards and farmland. To the south lie the Santa Susana Mountains and Oak Ridge, coated with coastal sage scrub, oak woodland and chaparral. Several small towns in this vicinity do not impinge on the natural, dynamic river.
The biological resources of the Santa Clara River are impressive. The riparian forest next to the river is home for a host of bird species, including the endangered least Bell's vireo. The unarmored threespine stickleback, a small endangered fish, inhabits the river's upper reaches. The river estuary supports the western snowy plover, least tern and tidewater goby, all federally listed as endangered. Overall, 14 resident bird species along the are listed as endangered or of special concern; and 6 plant species are endangered or candidates for listing.
By far the largest long-term threat to the health of the river ecosystem is urban development. Ventura County has policies restricting development to within existing city boundaries. In Los Angeles County, however, urban sprawl has, up to now, been accepted. Numerous development projects are either in the approval process or partly built near the already fast growing city of Santa Clarita, involving a total of about 60,000 housing units.
The proposed "new city" of Newhall Ranch, encompassing nearly 12,000 acres straddling the river from I-5 to the Ventura County line, would add 21,000 units in a community of almost 70,000 people to the existing urban area. This "new city" would border the best remaining Santa Clara River woodlands, with inadequate provisions for buffer zones around the river. Degradation of the woodlands would inevitably follow due to increased human use, including off-road vehicles, and predation by domestic animals. Newhall Ranch would also have significant adverse impacts on the quality of life of all current residents of the Santa Clarita Valley, including loss of open space, degraded air quality, increased traffic congestion, and increased storm-water runoff. The Santa Clara River valley west of I-5 would be transformed from its current rural/natural setting of open landscapes to an urban zone.
Furthermore, the project would impact two of L.A. County's Significant Ecological Areas (SEAs) encompassing the Santa Clara River and the Santa Susana Mountains. Village centers and residential subdivisions would line the river corridor. They would sever the natural transition zone from riparian to surrounding upland and produce numerous degrading "edge effects" on the river's woodlands. The narrow river corridor and its woodlands need much more buffering from urban encroachment than is provided in Newhall's Plan..
Newhall Ranch, although proposed as a "master planned" community, involves basically the same type of auto-dependent sprawl which has caused much of California's open space to disappear. A growing array of architects, planners and urban experts point out that, for 50 years, we have planned for automobiles, not people. We produce sprawling communities, with separated residential, shopping and office areas joined by feeder roads and divided highways. This pattern demands auto dependence, traffic congestion and a loss vibrant and friendly human communities. The Newhall Ranch brochure touts "village centers" which promote walking and cycling. But a layout by landuse type shows an auto-dependent community taking up more space than necessary.
According to the American Farmland Trust, the California coast is the third most threatened agricultural region in the nation. The long-term protection of these rich farmlands is of great importance to society. Newhall Ranch would wipe out nearly 1500 acres of agricultural land.
Air pollution is already a major problem in the Santa Clarita area, which has some of the worst air quality for ozone in the Los Angeles area. The valley is a natural air pollutant trap. Ozone derives primarily from emissions of nitrous oxides (NOx). Newhall Ranch NOx emissions of about 3,000 pounds per day would be additive to existing pollution plus that of 40,000 other units under development. Claims that federal and state air quality standards will one day be met while large-scale development proceeds in the valley defy common sense.
Water is generally not available for the projected growth in the Santa Clarita region. Newhall Ranch will get its water from the alluvial aquifer under the Santa Clara River, which is already in an overpumped condition. Supplies of state water, which are not reliable in drought years, continue to be relied on for most development near Santa Clarita. Since state water supplies will fall far short of entitlements in drought years, severe overpumping of both the alluvial aquifer and the Saugus deep-water aquifer under the river are likely to occur.
On the Need for Buffer Zones
The Santa Clara is the last major natural river remaining in Southern California, a region has already lost all but 3-5% of its pre-settlement riparian woodlands. Here is a statement from the Newhall Ranch Environmental Impact Report: "The Santa Clara River is a regionally significant biological resource. Its value is derived from the inherent value of the riparian habitats and associated species, from its function as a regional wildlife corridor, and because it is a natural river for most of its course". Yet Newhall Ranch is set to cause major degradation to the River's biological resources.
"Buffer Zones for Ecological Reserves in California: Replacing Guesswork with Science" is the title of a paper by Drs. Kelly and Rotenberry, two University of California Riverside scientists, in this Southern California Academy of Sciences volume "Interface Between Ecology and Land Development in California". The river's riparian corridor can properly be considered an ecological reserve, as per its designation by Los Angeles County as SEA#23. Here is a key quote from Kelly and Rotenberry's paper (page 87): "Buffer design needs to be regarded as a key component of any integrated management strategy for sensitive species". The Newhall Ranch EIR properly acknowledges that Newhall Ranch is home to a multitude of such species, but buffering ranges from small to non-existent. Moreover, the EIR does not consider the subject of adequate buffers or reference any studies concerning urban edge effects on riparian species. In designing buffers, the UC Riverside scientists consider what are the processes operating at the reserve boundary and to what extent are those external forces likely to penetrate the boundary and result in negative effects? Several potential forces are listed, including: (1) introduction of alien predators (particularly domestic cats and dogs), (2) increased nighttime illumination, (3) trespass, including pedestrian, equestrian, and off-road vehicle, (4) introduction of wildlife competitors, (5) pollution, and (6) disease transmission from domestic animals to wildlife. The paper illustrates the problem with a diagram showing a wildlife reserve in Orange County. This reserve, which is up to a mile wide in places, is discussed by the authors as likely having no interior area immune from certain edge effects such as far-ranging pets, even at a mile in width, four times wider than the river corridor allotted in the Specific Plan. (Note: The Final EIR attempts to disallow the results of this paper, but the edge effects analyzed are nevertheless applicable to riparian zones as well as larger reserves).
Loss of Santa Clara River Floodplain
The Specific Plan as approved will result in a loss of over 140 acres of floodplain. An acre is about one football field in size, the loss of floodplain thus amounts to 140 football fields, a very large loss. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board has recommended that the Newhall Ranch applicant avoid development in the floodplain. Friends of the Santa Clara River also recommends that floodplain development be avoided. Why? The purpose of floodplains is to store floodwaters - that would seem to be a basic principle of river function, but one often ignored. Usurping the floodplain of a river has serious immediate and long-term repercussions on the hydrology of the river and on channel morphology, both upstream and downstream. Immediate impacts are shown by the need to cover 80% of the northbank and 30% of the southbank with bank stabilization to protect large areas of fill for placement of housing units. Long-term impacts include structural flood control measures of unknown magnitude which could be required in the future due to the cumulative effects of artificial reduction of the existing floodplain.
The degradation of the Santa Clara River and valley as a rural and prime natural area has already begun. It is moving swiftly through the heavy development in the Santa Clarita area. With the Newhall Ranch proposal, the process continues almost to the Ventura County line, building long-term pressure for continued development toward the ocean. Insufficient attention to cumulative impacts has allowed disastrous development along most of Southern California's rivers. We have an opportunity to prevent a similar fate for the Santa Clara. Newhall Ranch should be redesigned to have a much smaller footprint, confined mostly to the existing entitlements in the eastern portion of the property. This alternative would utilize the area next to existing urban uses, provide an adequate river buffer zone, and avoid development in the floodplain. It would fully protect the critical riparian woodland and wildlife corridors, as well as avoiding a sprawling strip of development along Route 126.
Friends' Comments on River Village - Newhall Ranch First Phase
March 1, 2004
Los Angeles County Dept. of Regional Planning
320 West Temple Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Attn: Hsiao-ching Chen
Re: Newhall Ranch River Village NOP
Dear Mr. Chen,
Friends of the Santa Clara River is pleased to submit the following comments regarding the Newhall Ranch River Village Notice of Completion.
Recent surveys by independent biologists along the Santa Clara River have resulted in the discovery of threatened or endangered species where previous Newhall-hired biologists have found none. This surely calls into question the thoroughness and veracity of the Newhall surveys. Therefore, we request that Los Angeles County order surveys of the River Village area by independent biologists, and that the results of such surveys be provided to cognizant agencies and to the general public.
Friends has never been satisfied that there is substantial evidence justifying Los Angeles County's findings that development in Newhall Ranch was located and designed so as not to conflict with critical resources and habitat within Significant Ecological Area (SEA) 23. The Los Angeles County General Plan states unequivocally that development proposals near SEAs must be highly compatible with biotic resources and that sufficient natural cover or open space be retained to buffer critical resources from proposed uses.
There are two scientific references in the open literature which provide information directly relevant to the compatibility of River Village development with biotic resources. The first paper is "Buffer Zones for Ecological Reserves in California: Replacing Guesswork with Science" by two University of California Riverside scientists. This paper looks at the impacts of such factors as domestic cat, equestrian, human and ORV intrusion into an Orange County Reserve. Impacts were evident at the center of the one mile wide reserve. A second reference by Stanford's Department of Biological Studies shows that the placement of urban uses in the vicinity of riparian zones has substantial impacts on riparian bird comunities out to a distance of 1500 feet. Since River Village borders directly on SEA 23, essentially no buffer exists between the project and the river corridor and its sensitive biological areas. The Stanford paper's concluding paragraph contains the following statement: "The single most important step that can be taken to conserve riparian communities in the face of urbanization is to minimize development in and along floodplains by maintaining broad buffers of undeveloped land between developed areas and riparian habitats."
It is beyond question, based on the above scientific studies, that the integrity of the Santa Clara River SEA depends on the establishment of adequate buffer zones around the SEA. The River Village EIR therefore must evaluate impacts to the SEA and propose adequate mitigation. Mitigation, it appears, would almost certainly involve redesign of the tract to allow a much larger buffer area between the SEA border and developed areas.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment.
Ron Bottorff, Chair