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Court orders redo of environmental study of Newhall Ranch project

Environmentalists and cultural heritage preservationists are claiming victory after a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ordered the state Department of Fish and Game to redo studies of the proposed Newhall Ranch residential development.

The court essentially invalidated the agency’s environmental impact report and associated permits for the project, said Jason A. Weiner, associate director and staff attorney for the Wishtoyo Foundation's Ventura Coastkeeper Program.

Fish and Game must “suspend any and all specific project activity or activities that could result in an adverse change or alteration to the physical environment” until the agency complies with the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act by correcting certain deficiencies, the court ruled in the final judgment made public this week.

“They have to go back and re-conduct studies and follow procedure and ensure there is no detrimental impact and include public input,” Weiner said. 

The Newhall developers eventually want to build homes for about 60,000 residents along a six-mile stretch of the Santa Clara River.

But opponents argue that the development would harm the waterway, destroy wildlife habitat and despoil Native American cultural sites. In June, several groups -- including the Center for Biological Diversity, the California Native Plant Society, Friends of the Santa Clara River, Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment and Weiner’s organization -- sued the California Department of Fish and Game for allegedly failing to adequately assess the potential environmental effects.

In a “statement of intended decision” filed last month, Judge Ann I. Jones cited several alleged flaws in the environmental review, such as insufficient analysis of the effect on wildlife, including the rare San Fernando spineflower and steelhead salmon, which breed downstream.

Weiner argued that the analysis also failed to assess the impacts on cultural heritage sites, such as those belonging to the Chumash people, and lacked appropriate mitigation measures.

Fish and Game spokesman Mike Taugher said his agency was still awaiting a complete review of the judge's decision and had no comment at this time.

Marlee Lauffer, a spokeswoman for Newhall Land and Farming Co., said her company with working with the state agency on all issues related to the court's ruling. “We do intend to appeal the final decision,” she said.

For now, however, opponents were savoring their success.

“This ruling is long overdue,” Mati Waiya, Chumash ceremonial elder and Wishtoyo Foundation executive director, said in a written statement.

“We have worked hard to introduce the importance of our history and cultural resources to the courts. We feel that our voices were heard by the court and that the law protected our culture, ancestors and resources as the Legislature intended.”


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-- Ann M. Simmons in Santa Clarita

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