Suit Raises ‘Ranch’ Hurdle

The coalition suing the California Department of Fish and Game for signing off on Newhall Ranch claims the regulatory agency used bad science in its environmental reviews before building permits for the massive development were approved, officials said Tuesday.

A coalition of five environmental and Native American groups filed a lawsuit in San Francisco County Superior Court Monday that claims the department violated state environmental codes when it approved plans on Dec. 3 to build the 21,000-home development west of Interstate 5.

Fish and Game officials said Tuesday that they would not comment on the lawsuit because they had not reviewed it yet.

The lawsuit, which intends to derail the development as it is currently planned, states that once built, Newhall Ranch will cause significant harm to the Santa Clara River and surrounding environment.

The department’s decision allows Newhall Land Development LLC to fill about 20 miles of tributary streams that flow into the Santa Clara River with concrete, said John Buse, senior attorney for Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs.

The department chose not to move development farther from the river and surrounding streams, which was an option in the environmental report, that could protect more of the river from being developed, he said.

“I don’t think they considered (the alternatives) seriously or rejected (the alternatives) for sound scientific reasons,” Buse said.

Meanwhile, Newhall Land officials said the company has worked for 10 years figuring out ways to protect the Santa Clara River and surrounding environment.

About 70 percent of Newhall Ranch will be protected open space and will preserve 93 percent of the Santa Clara River corridor, said Marlee Lauffer, Newhall Land’s spokeswoman.

“We’re confident that with the years of analysis, mitigation measures and scientific research that went into the approval of these permits that Newhall Ranch will prevail in court,” Lauffer said.

Newhall Ranch will also include five preserves to protect the spineflower — an endangered plant with small white flowers — on approximately 167 acres, according to company documents.

But according to the lawsuit, preserves designed to protect the spineflower were designed using bad science and don’t provide enough open space to protect the flower from the proposed development.

“The department’s proposed spineflower preserve is based on junk science that is as likely to lead the Newhall Ranch spineflower population to extinction as it is to save it,” David Magney, president of the Channel Islands Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, said in a statement. “We need a preserve that actually preserves the species.”

Newhall Ranch has faced several lawsuits in the past and defeated each in court, Lauffer said. Newhall Ranch will win this lawsuit as well, she said.

“(The lawsuit) is disappointing but not surprising,” Lauffer said. “This seems to be the standard operating procedure for many of these groups.”

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Coalition Sues State Over Newhall Ranch Permits

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – A coalition of environmental and Native American groups on Monday sued the California Department of Fish and Game over permits issued to build 21,000 homes on Los Angeles County’s last major tract of undeveloped land.

The coalition, which filed the suit in San Francisco County Superior Court, alleges that fish and game officials violated state environmental codes in granting permits Dec. 3 for the controversial Newhall Ranch development.

“It is appalling that the Department of Fish and Game, the trustee for all of California’s wildlife, approved ecological destruction on this scale,” said John Buse, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs. “Far less damaging options were available, but the department brushed them aside.”

Fish and Game spokesman Andrew Hughan said he could not comment because the department has not yet seen the lawsuit, but in an earlier statement department officials said the approved plan will preserve 70 percent of the nearly 14,000-acre area as natural open space.

That space includes preserves to protect 76 percent of the rare San Fernando Valley spineflower and 93 percent of the Santa Clara River corridor.

Developers must also establish a $6 million endowment for preservation efforts.

“Hundreds of people, including biologists, botanists, hydrologists and other scientists, worked together to shape this biologically innovative project, and the end result ensures the protection of this site’s unique natural resources,” said Ed Pert, South Coast regional manager.

The coalition, however, says the plan did not go far enough.

Fish and Game is permitting the filling of much of the Santa Clara River and its floodplain, the concrete lining of 20 miles of tributary streams, desecration of Native American burial sites and sacred places, and the destruction of a quarter of the spineflower habitat, the lawsuit says.

“The state’s fish and game department 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,” said Lynne Plambeck, president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment, one of the plaintiffs.

Other plaintiffs are the Friends of the Santa Clara River, the California Native Plant Society and the Wishtoyo Foundation/Ventura Coastkeeper.

In planning for more than a decade, Newhall Ranch would create a city of some 60,000 residents in the rugged hills of northwest Los Angeles County.

The county approved the development plan in 2003, but has not yet approved construction. Plans were delayed when falling land prices pushed the developer, LandSource Communities Development, into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2008.
The bankruptcy caused CalPERS, the state employees’ pension fund, to lose a $970 million investment in the company.
The reorganized company, which includes a 15 percent holding by Miami-based building giant Lennar Corp., emerged from bankruptcy in 2009. Creditors filed a lawsuit in August alleging fraud in LandSource’s $1.4 billion debt deals.

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