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Environmentalists sue to block a new city in L.A. County

January 4, 2011 |  9:14 am

Santa clarita A coalition of environmental and Native American groups has 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 Monday 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 had not yet seen the lawsuit, but department officials had said earlier that the plan will preserve 70% of the nearly 14,000-acre area as natural open space.

That space is aimed at protecting 76% of the rare San Fernando Valley spineflower and 93% of the Santa Clara River, the longest and wildest river in Southern California. 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,” 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, another of the plaintiffs.

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

Planned 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. The project was 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 firm, which includes a 15% 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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-- Associated Press

Photo: The Santa Clara River, which snakes for nearly 100 miles from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Ventura County coast, is one of two California waterways that rank among the nations most threatened, according to the Washington-based American Rivers group. Part of the Santa Clara, which is the longest and wildest river remaining in Southern California, would be paved over by the massive Newhall Ranch project and other urban development proposed for the Santa Clarita Valley. Credit: Stephen Osman / Los Angeles Times

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