NEWHALL/28″/LK1st/mark2nd By CHRISTOPHER WOODARD Staff Reporter The recent decision by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to approve Newhall Ranch, a city of 70,000 planned for a verdant valley just west of Santa Clarita, has brought an immediate threat of a lawsuit from neighboring Ventura County. Officials there say the project will deplete the Santa Clara River and its upstream aquifers, destroying a source of water that feeds the county’s $300 million-a-year citrus and avocado industries. But officials with L.A. County and Newhall Land & Farming Co. say they’re on solid ground. As proof, they point to a six-foot stack of environmental documents they say show the project will not harm ground-water supplies. In addition, L.A. County supervisors have stipulated that before going forward with each new phase, the developer must prove it has enough water without depleting the area’s aquifers. “I’d say they’ve got a zero chance (of prevailing in a lawsuit),” said David Vannatta, a deputy to Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who helped broker a reduction in the size of the project. “We think we’re going to be totally successful.” Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn flatly disagrees. “It doesn’t take much of an attorney familiar with land use to tell you that is a flawed EIR (Environmental Impact Report),” he said. “The Santa Clara River valley is a very rich, fertile agricultural area. It produces 400,000 tons of fruit a year and depends completely on local water. The board (of supervisors) is very concerned about the project.” Ben Reznik, a Century City-based land-use attorney, said a lawsuit, if taken to the appellate level, could easily cost both sides $1 million. But he doubts Ventura County can halt the project. Even if a judge agrees that the project’s environmental documents are inadequate, the court likely would send it back to L.A. County to fix any deficiencies. Once the changes are made, and the environmental documents circulated for public comment, the board could simply re-approve the project. “If you’re a developer who doesn’t have the financial strength and staying power, it can be the death knell to a project,” said Reznik. “That’s not going to happen to Newhall Land. They’re well funded, and they can wait this out.” Slated for 19 square miles of mostly citrus and avocado groves between Magic Mountain and the Ventura County border, Newhall Ranch calls for 21,615 homes to be built in several phases, beginning in 2001. The project initially called for more than 24,351 homes, but was scaled back after Antonovich raised concerns about its size. L.A. County supervisors gave the project tentative approval on Nov. 24, with final approval expected in the next couple of months after Newhall Land responds to public comments concerning the project’s EIR. Both sides agree there is not enough water to serve the project, which will need an estimated 19,000 acre feet of water when all its phases are complete. But Newhall Land says it will have more than enough by using a combination of state water, Castaic Creek (a local waterway the company has entitlements to) and reclaimed water, which will be used for landscaping. “We’re hoping it doesn’t come to a lawsuit,” said Carol Maglioni, a spokeswoman for Newhall Land. “This is a strong project, and L.A. County has taken all the appropriate actions they could to address Ventura County’s concerns over water. We feel the safeguards are there.” Lynne Plambeck, a leader of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment (SCOPE), agrees with Flynn that the project will overtax the area’s groundwater basins. She believes Newhall Land is downplaying the role groundwater will play in serving the project. Valencia Water Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of Newhall Land, will be providing the water to the project, and the water company relies on groundwater to serve its customers for the most part, she said. “The bottom line is, it’s cheaper to pump than buy state water,” said Plambeck. The Sierra Club, of which Plambeck is a Santa Clarita-area representative, has filed a complaint with the California Public Utilities Commission, alleging the development will overtax Santa Clarita’s groundwater basins. The complaint is pending. Jim Harter, Newhall Land’s senior vice president in charge of the project, confirmed that Valencia Water Co. does draw groundwater, but insists that L.A. County has built in several safeguards to ensure the project results in no net decrease in the water table. The county will accomplish that by monitoring groundwater to make sure there is no net decrease and by requiring Newhall Land to prove it has water arranged as it applies for a subdivision map. Although the company would be required under county regulations to pick up the tab for the project’s defense, Newhall Land has no intention of halting the project, said Harter. The company has begun market research to determine what homebuyers are looking for and what themes might sell each phase. Of a possible lawsuit, Harter said, “We think it would be a waste of resources.” A development that could take some of the punch out of a lawsuit by Ventura County are plans by the Castaic Lake Water Agency to buy the rights to 41,000 acre feet of water from the Kern County Water Agency. The deal, valued at more than $41 million, would add substantially to the Santa Clarita Valley’s supplies. Robert Sagehorn, general manager of Castaic Lake Water Agency, the area’s water wholesaler, confirmed the deal is close to being finalized. While the additional water is not being purchased specifically to benefit Newhall Ranch, it will help provide for the region’s water needs well into the future, he said. Ken Turner, the groundwater manager for the United Water Conservation District, a downstream water provider that serves farmers throughout Ventura County, said acquisition of the 41,000 acre feet would go a long way in satisfying his agency’s concerns. The district’s own modeling shows that without a source of new water, Newhall Ranch would result in a net deficit of water in the Santa Clarita basin of 153,000 acre feet in the project’s first 24 years.