By DANIEL TAUB

Staff Reporter

Befitting what is billed as the largest planned community ever proposed in Los Angeles County, the biggest obstacle facing the 12,000-acre Newhall Ranch project hinges on a classic L.A. development issue: water.

Critics of the project environmentalists and officials from neighboring Ventura County chief among them say developer Newhall Land and Farming Co. has not adequately explained where the 21,600-home project in the Santa Clarita Valley will get its water. The issue is no small consideration for a massive community in a region prone to drought.

Those critics are worried that if firm arrangements are not made now for Newhall Ranch's water supply, the area's groundwater eventually will have to be tapped as the project is developed over the next 20 to 30 years. That could have a negative impact on local citrus crops and wild plant life while boosting water bills for Santa Clarita Valley residents who moved there before Newhall Ranch was built.

Despite those objections, the county Board of Supervisors in late November gave preliminary approval to the project. Newhall Land must now complete its final environmental impact report before the board can take final action something likely to happen in late February or early March, said L.A. County regional planner Lee Stark.

"We're not going to be using groundwater, which is one of the areas everybody keeps talking about," said Thomas L. Lee, Newhall Land's chairman and chief executive, in a recent interview with the Business Journal. "Everybody thinks we're going to steal their groundwater. It's very clearly documented in the EIR where the water is coming from."

Marlee Lauffer, Newhall Land's vice president of corporate communications, said the development will have three major sources of water, each of which will account for about a third of the supply. The first is reclaimed water that will be treated at a plant to be built within Newhall Ranch and used for irrigating parks and golf courses. Another source will be overflow water from Castaic Creek, to which Newhall Land has the rights under an agreement reached when Castaic Dam was first built. The third source will be water bought from the state.

"We have made it clear from the very beginning that these are the three sources for the water and there will be no net increase in groundwater use," Lauffer said.

But critics say that unless major changes are made in the final EIR, one or more lawsuits are likely.

"We have to debate whether or not to (file suit) among ourselves," said John Flynn, a member of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. "I know we feel strongly about it, and we're disappointed with the preliminary decision made by he L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Water is still an issue."

Lynne Plambeck, a leader of the Santa Clarita Organization of Planning and the Environment and the area representative for the Sierra Club, said her two organizations must wait for final action by the Board of Supervisors before moving forward with a lawsuit. "Legally, we don't have any choice," she said.

Aside from the legal questions that hang over Newhall Ranch, developers likely will have little problem finding 70,000 people to move into homes in the community planned to first open in 2003.

The population in the Santa Clarita Valley, which now has about 190,000 residents, will grow by about 211 percent between 1994 and 2020, according to the Southern California Association of Governments. Given that Newhall Land is by far the dominant landholder and developer in the area, the vast majority of those new residents could find themselves living in Newhall Ranch.

"The project was generally consistent with our growth forecast for that area," said Bill Boyd, SCAG's senior planner for intergovernmental review.

William Fulton, editor of the California Planning and Development Report and author of "The Reluctant Metropolis," a book on the development of L.A., said that, based on the area's population growth, Newhall Ranch's success is all but guaranteed.

"What's happened in the last 15 or so years is that we've seen tremendous demand in what you'd call the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley" just south of the Santa Clarita Valley, Fulton said. "Basically, every job created in the San Fernando Valley has created demand for housing 45 minutes away. I think that means housing demand is there for whatever Newhall (Land) wants to build."

While many Newhall Ranch residents will commute down the Golden State (5) Freeway to jobs in the San Fernando Valley or below, a significant number are expected to stay in the Santa Clarita Valley, which is seeing its job base grow rapidly. Valencia, a planned community of 36,000 residents also developed by Newhall Land, has almost as many jobs (31,000) as it has residents. Newhall Ranch is expected to have more than 19,000 jobs.

"As more employment grows in the Santa Clarita Valley, fewer people will be leaving this area for employment," said Lauffer.

She said no price has yet been set for any of the homes or commercial sites planned as part of Newhall Ranch. That will be done after the company receives final approval from L.A. County, and subdivision and tract maps are drawn.

Newhall Ranch will have a variety of dwellings, including apartments, condominiums, single-family and custom-built homes. The mix will be much like that found in Valencia.

The housing portion of Valencia, which has been developed over more than three decades, is getting close to completion, with about 13,000 homes already built and another 8,000 still to be constructed. As less is available in Valencia, development of Newhall Ranch will begin.

Because Valencia is not yet completed, Newhall Land also has not yet started marketing or selling homes in Newhall Ranch. As a result, prices have not been set for homes in the new community.

"Our main focus is Valencia, then the entitlement of Newhall Ranch," Lauffer said. "Homes in Newhall Ranch are about four years away before people can actually live there."

Project Name: Newhall Ranch

Developer: Newhall Land and Farming Co.

Project Description: 21,600 homes and 1,000 acres of commercial, industrial and mixed-use development on 12,000 acres in the Santa Clarita Valley just east of Valencia. Also, 6,200 acres of the project will be devoted to high country and river open space.

Expected Start Date: Late 2001

Expected Completion Date: First homes completed in 2003, with multiple phases finished 20 to 30 years after construction begins, depending on market demands.

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