It's not every day that a city places a full-page newspaper advertisement demanding a larger sphere of influence. Yet that is just what the City of Santa Clarita did last fall — on the same day it placed another full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times complaining about a gravel quarry proposed outside the city limits.
The splashy advertisements are just one part of the latest round in the City of Santa Clarita's long fight with Los Angeles County over control of one of the fastest growing areas in the county.
When Santa Clarita incorporated in 1987, it became a city with no sphere of influence. The city filed applications in 1989 and 1991 with the Los Angeles County Local Agency Formation Commission to establish a large sphere of influence, but LAFCO said no both times. In January 2000, the city filed another application with LAFCO, this time seeking to place 116 square miles of the Santa Clarita Valley and its hillsides into the city's sphere of influence. The city of 151,000 residents now covers about 47 square miles.
Once again, Santa Clarita faces opposition from the county and from builders — who do not want the city to get between them and the development-friendly Board of Supervisors. This time, however, Santa Clarita is gathering as much political support as it can muster. The city has lined up endorsements from Assemblyman George Runner (R-Lancaster) and U.S. Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), who served on the original Santa Clarita City Council. Several schools districts and a number of business and civic organizations also support the city's proposal.
The newspaper ads and a mass mailing generated about 10,000 response cards, 95% of which endorsed the city's sphere request, said Planning and Building Director Jeff Lambert, who is leading the city's efforts.
"This is a full-court press," Lambert said. "We're going up against Newhall Land & Farming, and they are much more persuasive downtown than we are."
Newhall has been responsible for much of the development in the Santa Clarita Valley and still owns tens of thousands of acres in the area. The developer opposes Santa Clarita's proposal to reach across Interstate 5 to Newhall holdings west of the freeway. That area includes the site of the proposed Newhall Ranch, where the developer plans what would essentially be a new town of 21,800 homes and 1,000 acres of commercial and mixed-used development. (See CP&DR, January 1999, July 2000.) Los Angeles County has approved a specific plan and zoning changes for Newhall Ranch, but the project is mired in litigation brought by neighboring Ventura County over the development's water sources.
Publicly, Santa Clarita does not want to block the giant Newhall Ranch development. The city, in fact, is not part of the lawsuit against the project. Still, there are lingering questions. Santa Clarita has raised a fair number of slow-growth activists since becoming a city and some of them have lobbied against Newhall Ranch.
"We are opposed to the sphere of influence west of the 5 freeway on our property. We are not opposed to the sphere of influence request for our property on the east side of the 5 freeway," Newhall spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer said. "We've always seen the 5 freeway as the dividing line between the city and the county. … There are no city services in that area and it's isolated from the rest of the city."
Currently, the city's boundary coincides with the Interstate for several miles. To the west lies Newhall Ranch, the 6,000-unit Stevenson Ranch, which is partially approved and built, and Six Flags' Magic Mountain theme park. All of those interests want the city to remain on the other side of the eight-lane freeway.
But Santa Clarita officials complain that they have no control over development that is greatly affecting their city.
"Over 40,000 new housing units are approved or pending for development in the unincorporated (non-city) Santa Clarita Valley," said the city's newspaper ad, which featured a picture of children taking a number to play on a swing. "This will seriously impact our schools, traffic, emergency service, natural environmental resources, water availability and other urban services. Right now, the City of Santa Clarita has no formal voice in new development approvals outside City boundaries where the majority of development is occurring, and no voice in the adequate provision of schools, parks and roads."
The second ad, regarding a proposed quarry in the hills east of the city, contained even stronger language. The advertisement said the Transit Mixed Concrete proposal would worsen traffic, affect groundwater, lower property values and threaten children's health. The county has scheduled a public hearing on the quarry this month.
The newspaper advertisements were not popular in the office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who has represented the area for 20 years. Antonovich Policy Deputy Conal McNamara called the ads "offensive." He said they unfairly painted the county as the villain, and he questioned their timing.
"I think city-county relations are a lot better than they used to be, to the credit of some people at the City of Santa Clarita," McNamara said.
McNamara, a former Santa Clarita planner, said the city does not need a sphere of influence to have a say on area development. Antonovich requires developers to meet with city officials and work out details before seeking county entitlements, McNamara said. "I don't know what it's going to get them that they don't already have," he said of the sphere of influence. In fact, the city and county have even embarked on a joint general plan for the area.
"The sphere doesn't give them [Santa Clarita officials] control over the land." said LAFCO Executive Officer Larry Calamine, "But it does give them a seat at the table."
McNamara and the area's big developers say future residents, some of whom will not arrive until houses are built 20 years in the future, should determine who governs their communities. "It is premature and inappropriate to say to future Newhall Ranch residents that this is your only option for jurisdiction," Newhall's Lauffer said. They should have the opportunity to form their own city or even incorporate with the nearby community of Castaic, which opposes Santa Clarita's proposed sphere of influence, she added.
City Planner Lambert recognizes that the county does provide the city opportunities to influence development of unincorporated lands. But the city wants a formalized review process. Moreover, there should be only one agency that decides on development for the entire valley, he contended. Lambert endorsed the joint general plan effort. If both the city and county agree on guiding principles, they should go ahead with specifics for a new general plan, he said. But that does not mean the city's sphere of influence effort will end.
The Los Angeles LAFCO will likely conduct a public hearing on Santa Clarita's application in February or March, Calamine said. He said the city's request is more reasonable than its previous two filings, and it is unusual in that it seeks residential areas, not only revenue-generating commercial strips.
"They make a good case for much of the property they want to add," said Calamine, who declined to say what he would recommend to the LAFCO board.
Lambert said the proposed sphere is not as expansive as earlier proposals and that it closely matches community college and high school district boundaries.
Contacts: Jeff Lambert, Santa Clarita Planning Division, (661) 255-4330. Marlee Lauffer, Newhall Land & Farming Co., (661) 255-4000. Conal McNamara, Office of Supervisor Michael Antonovich, (213) 974-5555. Larry Calamine, Los Angeles LAFCO, (213) 974-1448.
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