Newhall Ranch Getting Closer

An agreement reached this week between two federal agencies strengthens environmental standards for the proposed Newhall Ranch  development and clears the way for the development to receive one of its crucial permits.

The regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had disagreed over the scope of Newhall Land Development Inc.’s 20,000-home development project.

But under an agreement reached Tuesday, stream acreage that could be affected by the development was cut in half, from 93 acres to 48 acres. Of that, only five affected acres can be wetlands, compared with the Army Corps’s original proposal of 21 acres, according to a letter sent Tuesday from an EPA official to the Army Corps.

Also, a creek in Potrero Canyon will be protected, the letter states.

The EPA and the Army Corps agreed that a wetlands permit would be allowed, clearing the way for the Army Corps’s main permit.

Jason Brush, manager of the EPA’s wetlands office, acknowledged that the EPA compromised with the Army Corps in granting the Clean Water Act permit.

Negotiations between the regional EPA office and the Army Corps reached a fever pitch earlier this year when EPA officials threatened to send the Army Corps’s draft permit to the national Office of Water for review.

Construction in floodplains should be avoided if possible, Brush said. “It’s pretty settled science. We’re seeing evidence in the news every day on that.”

But, “We’ve not been empowered by Congress to compel people not to build in floodplains,” he added.

Overall, Brush said the EPA settled on a document that gives up a little on floodplain protection, but gains a lot in open space.

More than 70 percent, or 8,700 acres of 12,000 acres, of Newhall Ranch land will be preserved open space.

“We’re chewing at the margins a little bit here,” Brush said. “Overall on this project, there’s a lot of avoidance and preservation of open space.”

“We are extremely pleased that (the EPA) and the Army Corps have approved changes that will preserve critical habitat and natural resources on Newhall Ranch for many generations,” Newhall Land spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer said.

“We’re satisfied with the revisions taken. This is a very important step.”

The EPA is allowing Newhall Land to build on “a massive amount of floodplain and wetlands,” said Lynne Plambeck, president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment.

“If the public can’t expect the regulatory agencies to enforce the law in the face of well-heeled interests, what is this country coming to?” Plambeck said.

Newhall Ranch will spread south and west from Interstate 5 and state Route 126 and will mirror the size and scale of Valencia, the development firm’s first planned community.

The project has been approved by Los Angeles County’s Regional Planning Commission, and will be before the county Board of Supervisors by the end of the year, Lauffer said.

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