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Debate brews over Newhall Ranch lands

Leon Worden · May 21, 1997

Environmentalists and the developer of the proposed master-planned community of Newhall Ranch seem to agree about one thing: that the 6-square-mile wilderness corridor known as the "High Country" is among the most ecologically sensitive and topographically spectacular areas of the Santa Clarita Valley and should be preserved in perpetuity.

That's about where the consensus ends. At what point the public should be allowed on the land, and who should manage it, are sources of a debate that finds the land owner -- The Newhall Land and Farming Co. -- at odds with a powerful state agency. The debate is playing itself out before the L.A. County Regional Planning Commission, which will decide if Newhall Ranch is a go.

The developer intends to deed the High Country to a non-profit land management firm, much as it is deeding the historic Spanish sub-mission site at Castaic Junction to an archaeological foundation. However, the developer wants to hold off until the 15,000th building permit is issued, and at a projected construction rate of 1,000 units per year, it will be 15 years after construction begins before the public gains access to the property.

The timing is similar to arrangements many developers make when they offer public benefits in exchange for the right to build in phases. Even if the county approves the Newhall Ranch master plan, there is no guarantee of smooth sailing for each phase of development. Each of the five villages and commercial areas will have to go through separate environmental reviews, and the county has stipulated that each phase must demonstrate a reliable source of water before construction can commence.

Rorie Skei, division chief for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, has a different idea of how the High Country transfer should work. Not only should it happen sooner, she says, but the public -- i.e., the Conservancy -- should acquire the property outright. "The Conservancy provides resource management and public access opportunities region-wide, including park lands to the west, south and southeast of Newhall Ranch. We are ready, willing, qualified and committed to provide the appropriate public oversight and management of this critically important regional asset."

Moreover, the master plan for the Rim of the Valley Trail, adopted by the state in 1990, shows the trail running through the High Country as it courses through the Santa Susana Mountains. The Conservancy wants to acquire the necessary property to complete this major regional trail system.

Newhall Ranch executives counter that the Conservancy is susceptible to political pressures and state budget cuts, and that consistent care of the property can be provided by a private, non-profit entity that manages mitigation lands at no cost to the public. The developer plans to deed the 3,950-acre High Country -- and another 1,089 acres of open space and 813 acres along the Santa Clara River, for a total of 9 square miles -- to the Sacramento-based Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM), which would also receive a monetary endowment. To ensure public agency oversight, Newhall Land would file a conservation, public access and recreation easement enabling the county to enforce land use restrictions that might not be enforceable if the Conservancy owned the property.

Critics worry that the little-known CNLM lacks sufficient resources to actively manage ecologically significant lands that stretch from I-5 to Ventura County and encompass almost half of the entire Newhall Ranch project area.

Who is CNLM? According to records at UC Davis, CNLM was incorporated in 1990 to "accept permanent responsibility for parcels of land that have been dedicated as mitigation for wetlands, threatened and endangered species, other natural resources, or open space." CNLM has five offices in California and a seven-member board whose directors have extensive resumes in environmental sciences. It receives funding through endowments (such as Newhall Land would provide), bonds and property taxes, contracts, grants and donations.

Of CNLM's modest $250,000 annual budget, 60 percent goes to property management, 20 percent to special projects and the rest to overhead. In 1994 it received a $45,000 grant from the Packard Foundation (as in Hewlett-Packard) to analyze costs and management needs for the long-term stewardship of mitigation lands. It parlayed that grant and others into a computer modelling program that has since been used by several state agencies. CNLM has worked with the Nature Conservancy, the Bureau of Land Management and other institutions and developers.

Newhall Ranch executives say they have been negotiating with CNLM for two years and have no plans to walk away now. Stay tuned.

Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears on Wednesdays.


©1997 LEON WORDEN — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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