Judge Tosses Lawsuit Aimed at Blocking Newhall Ranch Phase 1

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has tossed out a lawsuit filed by local environmentalists against Los Angeles County for approving the first phase of Newhall Ranch, a development proposed for the northwestern Santa Clarita Valley.

Newhall Ranch is slated to be built on the southern banks of the Santa Clara River near the Ventura County line. Its first phase would be called Landmark Village, and when completed it would add some 21,000 homes to the SCV.

“We are very pleased at the strong ruling in favor of Landmark Village by the court, reaffirming the county’s extensive review of Landmark and its thorough compliance with CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) requirements,” said Marlee Lauffer, spokeswoman for Newhall Land Development Inc., developer for Newhall Ranch.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John A. Torribio rendered his decision Jan. 31 against a coalition of environmental groups that filed a joint lawsuit in March 2012, claiming the county’s approval of Landmark Village violated California’s environmental protection laws.

The lawsuit filed by Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment, commonly called SCOPE, Friends of the Santa Clara River and other environmental groups asked the court to review the legality of the county’s approval process.

“In the midst of the most serious drought in 135 years, the court insisted on upholding the county’s failure to analyze water in its Development Monitoring System and Newhall’s assertion that adding this massive housing project will have no significant impact on greenhouse gas generation causing climate change,” SCOPE spokeswoman Lynne Plambeck said in a written statement Thursday.

“We have suffered through 80-degree days in January and no significant rainfall in months,” she said. “We must begin to constructively address these problems before Newhall Ranch proceeds.

“Failure to do so will hurt our existing residents and businesses.”

In rendering his 14-page decision, Torribio cited several flaws and shortcomings in the lawsuit filed by the coalition, according to a copy of his Statement of Decision obtained by The Signal.

Environmentalists claimed in their suit, for example, that the county did not properly analyze water supply availability. Specifically, the suit claimed county officials failed to appreciate the current capacity of the Valencia Water Company to supply water when they approved Landmark Village.

Regarding that claim, Torribio said: “The Environmental Impact Report discussed the Valencia Water Company available groundwater supply and it was quantified. … The EIR also clearly established that the Newhall project would provide its own potable water demands from its present existing agricultural rights to draw from the alluvial aquifer.”

His opinion continued: “This clearly shows that water capacity issue was considered and analyzed and set forth in the EIR.”

In wrapping up his review of the “water supply” claim, Torribio said of the environmentalists’ claim: “The subsequent arguments are based on the false premise and fail.”

The judge concludes his Statement of Decision noting: “The balance of the issues raised are barred by Exhaustion of Remedies.”

This means the environmentalists cannot seek a remedy in another court or jurisdiction until all the claims made by the current lawsuit are addressed in the current jurisdiction.

The first phase of Newhall Ranch was approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in February 2012, giving Newhall Land the green light to start developing 422 lots on about 295 acres. The lots would host 270 single-family homes, 744 condominiums and 430 apartments, along with 16 commercial spaces.

The plan for Landmark Village, Phase 1 of Newhall Ranch, also calls for 119 lots for open space, plus at least one fire station, park and school.

Newhall Ranch is a master-planned community from the same firm that planned and developed Valencia.

Click HERE for the article.

Appeals Court Hears Newhall Ranch Arguments

Environmentalists opposed to Newhall Ranch, along with the developer expected to start building it, presented arguments Wednesday for and against the 21,000-home development west of Interstate 5 along Highway 126.

Officials representing the Center for Biological Diversity defended the center’s lawsuit filed in 2012 against the California Department of Fish & Wildlife. The suit claims the development would destroy natural habitat for native plants and animals along the banks of the Santa Clara River.

The center filed a lawsuit against Fish & Wildlife for granting Newhall Land Development Inc. a permit to develop an area near the river.

In November 2012, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ann Jones ruled there were flaws in the Environmental Impact Report prepared for the development by Newhall Land in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act.

Newhall Land appealed the decision and, on Wednesday, that appeal was heard by three Los Angeles appellate court judges.

“One of the things I mentioned, which I thought was a key contentious issue, was how this project — which is pretty enormous — contributes to greenhouse gas emissions,” John Buse, legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Signal after the hearing.

“The heating and cooling of all those homes, plus all the cars driving back and forth from each of those homes — all these things would be producing carbon emissions,” he said.

Nehwall Land officials argued that the Environmental Impact Report they prepared was sound and sensitive to the environment.

“It was an hour of arguments.” Newhall Land spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer told The Signal following the hearing.

“We have spent a decade working with the Department (of Fish & Wildlife) and various state and federal agencies,” she said. “There is significant land dedication for environmental resource stewardship, a large habitat for indigenous species, specifically for preservation of the (protected San Fernando Valley) spineflower, and preservation of natural open space areas.”

A lawyer representing Fish & Wildlife named in the lawsuit spoke at the hearing, as did a lawyer representing an environmental group called Wishtoyo who spoke about the impact the development would have on cultural heritage of the Chumash people, Buse said.

The panel of judges for the Court of Appeal is expected to make its decision in the next 90 days.

In February 2012, Los Angeles County supervisors approved the first phase of Newhall Ranch, called Landmark Village.

The project calls for developing 422 lots on about 295 acres. The lots would mean 270 single-family homes, 744 condominiums and 430 apartments, along with 16 commercial lots.

The plan for Landmark Village also calls for 119 lots for open space, plus at least one fire station, park and school.

Newhall Ranch is a master-planned community from the same firm that planned and developed Valencia.

After its projected 25- to 30-year construction period, it would include more than 20,000 residences west of Interstate 5.

Click HERE for the article.

Highway 126 Expansion to Begin Soon

Citing a need to address growing traffic concerns and the potential for short and long-term economic benefits, a partnership of state and county agencies is planning to break ground on a $50 million project to expand and reroute Highway 126 near the Valencia Commerce Center.

As designed, the project would entail construction of a bridge to lift Highway 126 over Commerce Center Drive in Castaic, improving traffic flow on both routes, according to Paul Maselbas, a principal engineer with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

Traffic
The project, a cooperative effort between Public Works, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the California Department of Transportation, would also add new lanes on the highway, expanding it to three in each direction.

Maselbas said Tuesday that more than 40,000 vehicles roll through the intersection of Commerce Center Drive and Highway 126 every day.

“The primary purpose of this project is to address existing traffic congestion,” Maselbas said.

But long-term relief for commuters could come at the cost of some temporary delays along Highway 126, which serves as the primary route to some segments of the Santa Clarita Valley, including Val Verde and portions of Castaic, as well as parts of Ventura County and Highway 101.

Jeffrey Payne, construction manager for the Highway 126 project, said Tuesday the highway should be fully open during peak travel times in the morning and at night, but could be reduced to one lane in each direction during construction hours.

He also said there would be “very little” work on weekends or at night in the area.

Funding
While $9 million in funding for the project comes from a Metro grant, the lion’s share of funding for the $50 million project is in the form of bridge and major thoroughfare construction fees.

Those fees are part of the costs that accompany residential and commercial development, such as the Newhall Ranch residential development project, which would add more than 20,000 homes along Highway 126.

Though future developments would stand to benefit from the highway expansion, Maselbas said the project was not planned to benefit any specific development.

“This project is needed to address the current situation that exists and not to further future development,” Maselbas said.

Additional provisions
The project also includes adding on- and off-ramps from Highway 126 to Commerce Center Drive and Henry Mayo Drive, realigning and extending Henry Mayo Drive, adding new traffic signals at the intersection of Commerce Center and Henry Mayo drives and at the intersection of Highway 126 and the access road to the Valencia Travel Village RV park.

These road improvements could have a defined economic impact in the Santa Clarita Valley, according to Maselbas, as construction alone could create 1,600 temporary jobs.

Maselbas also said the completed project could result in the creation of 7,000 permanent jobs in the nearby Valencia Commerce Center as it is built out.

Other impacts
The project also entails planting new landscaping to help stabilize the bank of the Santa Clara River near Highway 126 and removing some invasive species to improve water flow in the river.

The plan is to start construction on the project sometime in mid-July or early August, according to Maselbas, though that could change depending on the outcome of biological studies in the area.

The potential for such delays was built into the construction contract for the project, which was awarded to local developer C.A. Rasmussen, Inc.

“We’ve got it built into our contract that the environment takes precedence over all else out there,” Maselbas said.

Public Works also has to relocate some utility services in the area to accommodate construction, according to Payne. But there should be no interruption in any services during relocation, he said.

The project is slated to be complete in late 2016.

Click HERE for the article.

Sierra Club Opposes Valencia Water Acquisition

Santa Clarita Valley, CA – In a detailed letter to California Attorney General Kamala Harris, delivered to the Los Angeles office last Friday, and a second letter to the California Public Utilities Commission, the Sierra Club listed extensive objections and legal impediments to the acquisition of Valencia Water Company (VWC), formerly owned by Newhall Land and Farming, asking that both agencies commence a formal investigation of this apparently illegal transaction.

The acquisition was completed just before the winter holidays in a lightening quick legal maneuver that avoided meaningful public input through a series of short notice special meetings and limited disclosure of deal points. The full implication of the $73.8 million dollar purchase by the state water wholesaler, Castaic Lake Water Agency, only came to light after a number of public record requests and legal analysis of the impacts of the purchase.

Newhall Land and Farming is the developer of the massive 21,000 unit Newhall Ranch project and the former parent company of Valencia Water Company. Sierra Club participated in the successful litigation brought over its approval in 2000 and is currently a party to challenges to the still unbuilt first phase of the proposal.

“It is troubling that Newhall Land and Farming now has a sweetheart deal for access to water that supersedes the needs of existing residents and other approved developments supplied by Castaic Lake Water Agency[i],” said Ron Silverman, Executive Director of the Sierra Club Angeles Chapter. “Sierra Club has long opposed the Newhall Ranch project over concerns of adequate water supply and the project’s impacts on the Santa Clara River, Los Angeles County’s last free-flowing river.”

Additional objections to the purchase include 1) The acquisition is not authorized by statute; Castaic Lake Water Agency acted knowingly in contradiction to its own enabling legislation. 2) The illegal acquisition creates the vertical monopoly of a state water wholesaler operating a water retailer, contrary to existing state law for this agency as well as prudent economics. 3) The pollution plume emanating from the closed Whittaker Bermite munitions manufacturing facility is now migrating in a westerly direction in VWC’s service area, causing the closure of two additional Valencia water wells. These closures affect the community’s water supply and will result in expensive remediation. The impacts to the public water supply were not considered in the deference granted to Newhall’s projects in the purchase contract, which additionally includes language causing the public and therefore the local taxpayers to indemnify Newhall for these costs.

The Public Utilities Commission will hold public hearings on this purchase and the proposed 16% water rate increase purposed by Valencia Water Company on May 16th at 1PM and 7PM at the Santa Clarita City Council Chambers, 23920 Valencia Blvd., Santa Clarita 91355.

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The Sierra Club Angeles Chapter is the local voice of the Sierra Club, America’s oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization. Over 110,000 members and supporters in Los Angeles and Orange counties strive to explore, enjoy and protect nature in their communities and the planet. For more information, visit www.angeles.sierraclub.org.

Click HERE for the article.

Newhall Ranch: The Unending Quest to Develop The Santa Clara River

Like some unending TV soap opera, the efforts to permit the Newhall Ranch and the persistent opposition of community activists continues — and it’s far from being over yet.

More than a year ago the Sierra Club joined four other environmental organizations to challenge the first phase approval of the massive Newhall Ranch project that would bring 21,000 new housing units. The largest “new town” urban sprawl project ever approved in the state of California is located adjacent to the Santa Clara River, Los Angeles County’s last free-flowing river. The preservation of this rare gem, inhabited by several endangered species and remaining a prime example of what the Los Angeles River could have been without all that concrete, has been a focus for Angeles Chapter activists for more than a decade.

After successful litigation against the Ranch Specific Plan (where a court decision in 2000 set the project EIR aside for failure to address questions surrounding its water supply), the developer simply returned with an additional eight volumes of reports. In spite of all the disclosed impacts, the county simply couldn’t say no.

The original owners, the Newhall Land and Farming Co., did not survive the housing downturn. But after a bankruptcy that cost the California Employees Pension Fund (CalPers) its biggest loss ever (approximately 1 billion dollars), the project has returned from the dead, now funded by several New York hedge funds. No longer locally owned, Newhall Ranch has now raised the ire of a much broader group of people.

Who foots the bill? Taxpayers, of course

As local taxpayers realize the potential costs of the infrastructure that they apparently will be made to fund, and the impacts of global warming become more apparent, this massive auto-oriented project makes less and less sense. Rising gas prices may ring a death knell to the project as moderate economic level homeowners find it more and more expensive to fill a commuter gas tank every week.

In the meantime, a lawsuit filed by several national, state and local environmental groups against the California Fish and Game Department for its approval of Newhall’s River Alteration permit, along with Sierra Club’s action against the first phase approval, have delayed its groundbreaking.

After a ruling in favor of the conservation groups, the developer’s attorney did the unthinkable: He filed a bias claim against the judge, apparently in large part because his clients didn’t like her opinion against them. Whatever happened to the Rule of Law? The judge was rightfully and quickly cleared of any misconduct, but this unseemly tactic threw a well-warranted delay into the legal proceedings. With the alteration permit still up in the air, a stay was granted on the phase one proceeding to which Sierra Club is a party.

The action apparently has left the developer and its hedge fund owners a bit out of pocket. To make up for these delays and the continued slow real estate market, Lennar Corp., the Florida-based builder and parent company of Newhall, held a year-end fire sale, casting off several real estate assets to beef up December cash balances. One of those assets was the water company they had owned for decades, the same water company that served their many developments and is scheduled to serve Newhall Ranch.

New water company purchase contract makes improper assurances about water for Newhall

In a lighting quick back room deal over the holidays with only 24 hours notice to the public, Castaic Lake Water Agency moved $73.8 million in public funds into the hands of this corporation and their New York hedge fund owners. They bought Valencia Water Co. without conducting a CEQA review and with an advance promise to serve all of Newhall’s projects in the Purchase Contract, a promise they cannot legally make. But perhaps the most disturbing fact about this transaction is that Castaic, a state water wholesaler, is legally prohibited from owning this water retailer. At its recent executive committee meeting, the Angeles Chapter voted to approve a resolution asking the Public Utilities Commission to investigate the actions of the water company and its owners, and to send a letter to complaint to the Office of the Attorney General.

Click HERE for the article.

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