Leon Worden

What price Golden Valley Ranch?

By Leon Worden
Wednesday, January 30, 2002

ith the best intentions, the City Council decided last week to try to do some economic development on the east side of town.
    The Golden Valley Ranch project is destined to provide big-box stores, a few hundred hillside homes, a school, storefront space for the hospital, and, if the state Department of Real Estate approves it and a judge can see a direct benefit to non-senior homeowners when the future homeowners association challenges it, an annual assessment that will go to the SCV Senior Center.
    There is little argument that Canyon Country needs some major, well-planned economic development. Hopefully one day we’ll see hotels spring up along state Route 14, and clever tourist venues to augment the Robinson Ranch Golf Course.
    But did the council make a mistake when it certified the Golden Valley Ranch project’s environmental documents last Thursday? And, will that mistake cost us our $1.5 million war against the world’s biggest gravel pit in Soledad Canyon?
    Let’s take a look.
    The city is suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to force it to designate the Transit Mixed Concrete Co. site as “critical habitat” for two endangered species, the southwestern arroyo toad and the slender-horned spineflower, which the city says have been found on or near the property. It’s a tactic the city is trying to use to stop the mine.
    Effectively, the city will need to persuade a court that the city does a better and more careful job than the federal government does in looking out for threatened and endangered species; and that the feds are more interested in the $28 million in fees that the mining project will generate than they are in upholding federal environmental law.
    Here’s the problem: The Golden Valley Ranch site is already a federally listed critical habitat for the coastal California gnatcatcher, and the council approved the environmental documents even though those documents didn’t take the scarce little bird into consideration.
    Now, it might be one thing if the council didn’t know the Golden Valley Ranch property was gnatcatcher territory— although even that might prove costly in court, if the city wants a judge to believe it’s more careful than the feds are about crossing all of the T’s and dotting the I’s when it comes to rare species.
    But the council did know about the gnatcatcher, and about the bungled environmental documents. Once again, the city’s consummate environmental watchdog, Councilwoman Laurene Weste, did her homework, dragging out the Federal Register where it lists the gnatcatcher, and discussing it at great length. The federal government, Weste noted, lists 24,980 acres in Placerita, Box Springs and Plum canyons as the northern extremity of the gnatcatcher’s critical habitat— and that habitat includes the Golden Valley Ranch site.
    The council elected to ignore the information and gave thumbs-up to the flawed environmental documents.
    Why didn’t the council simply delay the vote and instruct city staff to bring the documents back for approval after the omission had been corrected?
    It makes no sense. Perhaps the public’s eagerness to get a new shopping center simply blinded everyone to the bothersome little matter of “process.”
    Is there a solution? Not sure. Perhaps the council can order the environmental documents back for reconsideration.
    Already there’s word of a planned environmental lawsuit to force the city to “do it right.” That would be unfortunate, not only because the city will lose— and that will cost money— but also because the city would be on record in court, trying to defend Thursday’s decision to ignore the omission.
    Rest assured the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Transit Mixed Concrete people will be paying close attention to that testimony.
    Compounding the troubles are indications that the city didn’t properly circulate the environmental documents to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and certain other agencies that have an interest in the property east of the highway. If that’s the case, the city will likely get spanked.
    Sadly, this isn’t the first time the city has been less than thorough in its handling of endangered-species issues.
    Less than two years ago, city officials lobbied the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the Santa Clara River and San Francisquito Creek, inside city limits, as “critical habitat” for the southwestern arroyo toad. Without conducting a study or even bothering to look, the city decided there weren’t any of the rare croakers where the city and local developers wanted to build.
    That’s right. It’s the same little croaker the city wants the feds to protect just down the road, outside city limits, where the city doesn’t want something built.
    Judges don’t like double standards. They do like consistency. The legal road ahead may be paved with sand and gravel.
    Leon Worden is The Signal's city editor.

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