Ne­whall Ranch project clears hur­dle

Los Angeles Times - - CITY & STATE - By Louis Sa­h­a­gun louis.sa­h­a­gun @la­times.com Twit­ter: @LouisSa­h­a­gun

A decades-long fight by real es­tate and con­struc­tion in­dus­try in­ter­ests to build a 58,000-res­i­dent hous­ing de­vel­op­ment along the last wild river in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia over­came a hur­dle this week when state wildlife of­fi­cials ap­proved the project’s re­vised plans to pro­tect a rare fish and re­duce green­house gases.

The Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Fish and Wildlife on Wed­nes­day cer­ti­fied Ne­whall Ranch’s en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact re­port af­ter re­view­ing mod­i­fi­ca­tions made to mit­i­gate con­cerns raised by the Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court. The court re­jected a ver­sion of the doc­u­ment in 2015.

The changes in­clude mea­sures to off­set 100% of the green­house emis­sions the de­vel­op­ment will gen­er­ate by dic­tat­ing that houses, com­mer­cial build­ings and pub­lic fa­cil­i­ties have so­lar pan­els. The new plan also would re­quire that up to 21,000 homes have elec­tric ve­hi­cle charg­ing sta­tions — with sub­si­dies of­fered to pur­chase elec­tric ve­hi­cles.

A key stick­ing point for en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists has been the threat the de­vel­op­ment posed for a rare species that lives in the Santa Clara River, the un­ar­mored three­spine stick­le­back fish.

In the new re­port, Ne­whall Ranch has pro­posed meth­ods for build­ing bridges and bank sta­bi­liza­tion in­fra­struc­ture that it says will avoid all water con­tact dur­ing their con­struc­tion.

State wildlife of­fi­cials said these changes elim­i­nated the need for controversial protection mea­sures such as trap­ping and re­lo­cat­ing the small, pre­his­toric-look­ing fish, a na­tive species pro­tected un­der state and fed­eral law.

Emile Had­dad, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Five Point Hold­ings, which is de­vel­op­ing Ne­whall Ranch, wel­comed the state’s ac­tion as an im­por­tant step to­ward be­gin­ning con­struc­tion as early as next year.

Next month, he said, the com­pany is ex­pected to go be­fore the Los An­ge­les County Board of Su­per­vi­sors for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of tract maps for its first two vil­lages, Land­mark and Mis­sion.

Crit­ics of the project have long de­cried it as the sort of in­ef­fi­cient, traf­fic- and pol­lu­tion-gen­er­at­ing sprawl that gives South­ern Cal­i­for­nia a bad name with re­gional plan­ners.

On Thurs­day, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists ex­pressed mixed feelings about the state’s ac­tion.

“We’re not ready to green-light this project yet,” said John Buse, an at­tor­ney for the Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity, one of the groups that has sued the state and the de­vel­oper. “But there are some good things in the en­vi­ron­men­tal re­port now that weren’t there be­fore we took them to court.”

Devel­op­ers, he said, are now re­quired to deal with at least some of the fu­ture project’s con­tri­bu­tions to the po­ten­tially cat­a­strophic prob­lem of global cli­mate change.

“Be­yond that, Ne­whall had to scrap its plans to ba­si­cally evict stick­le­backs in the Santa Clara River, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Lynne Plam­beck, pres­i­dent of the Santa Clarita Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Plan­ning and the En­vi­ron­ment, was more blunt.

“The Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Fish and Wildlife let us down,” Plam­beck said. “We’re tired af­ter fight­ing this thing for more than 20 years on be­half of the pub­lic and crea­tures, but we’re not giv­ing up.”

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