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Planning redesign in north LA County complicated by Tejon Ranch's 'Centennial' and rules for solar arrays

Martha Bridegam on
Oct 23, 2014

East branch, California Aqueduct, north of Centennial site

A new template for land use and preservation is forming across some 1,800 square miles of Los Angeles County's high, dry northeastern backlands. Its first increment could establish some key development permissions by mid-November, especially affecting the large Centennial new-town design, other construction plans, and solar energy arrays.


The Antelope Valley (AV) Area Plan is tentatively scheduled for a vote by the LA County Supervisors on November 12. That approval, if granted, will be significant -- especially for the currently rural site along Highway 138 where the Tejon Ranch Co. has for years been laying regulatory groundwork to build a master-planned town it calls Centennial. There are also General Plan revisions afoot in two areas that affect the AV Plan area most: changes to boundaries and rules for Significant Ecological Areas (SEAs) and a renewable energy ordinance. (A plan to develop transit-oriented districts (TODs) is part of the same General Plan update process but affects more urban areas. The north edge of its "overview map" is in Pasadena.)

The Antelope Valley plan area (see map) covers rugged northeastern Los Angeles County, from the southeast-slanting San Andreas Fault to the Ventura, Kern and San Bernardino County lines, excluding incorporated areas around Lancaster and Palmdale, and applying as a limited overlay to federal property such as Edwards Air Force Base. It extends south of the fault to include the whole mass of the San Gabriel Mountains (including the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument), and the north half or so of the Angeles National Forest above Santa Clarita.

The Centennial site is near the current northern limit of suburban development that looks toward Los Angeles. Above it are mountain ridges that, for the present, occupy a gap between the footprints of greater Los Angeles and greater Bakersfield.

Mark Child, deputy director of advance planning with the L.A. County Department of Regional Planning, said the proposed SEA designation and governing ordinance changes would most affect the Antelope Valley area rather than other parts of L.A. County, especially now that sensitive habitats in the Santa Monica Mountains are being separately regulated by the new Santa Monica Mountains Local Coastal Plan and, farther inland, the Santa Monica Mountains North Area Plan. He said some SEAs are affected in the San Gabriel Valley and Puente Hills, but they are small in comparison to the Antelope Valley.

Environmental and community activists' concerns have included keeping rural places rural, ensuring "heavy agriculture" upzoning doesn't allow solar arrays as of right (Child said it doesn't), and, especially, limiting density in three "Economic Opportunity Areas" (EOAs) that the AV Area Plan designates for concentrated development. They have also questioned whether enough big-picture environmental regulation is in place to avoid harmful cumulative effects. Major affected landscapes include the western tip of the Mojave Desert with its wild poppy fields and Joshua trees, and the knot of the Coast, Transverse and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, including condor habitat, where I-5 climbs over Tejon Pass toward LA from the foot of the Central Valley.

Landowners, from owners of single-house lots to managers of mining and ranching concerns, have been asking nervously how certain they can be of future requirements under tiered processes that the program-level rules are designed to set up but not resolve. In addition to Centennial and other housing developments, major affected industries and projects under the AV Area Plan and General Plan amendments include aggregate mines, cattle ranchlands, oil and gas wells, and solar energy businesses.

For L.A. County's rural lands at present, it isn't easy to parse what will be decided where, how conclusively, and when. There are multiple rulemaking tracks; there are tiering provisions in the proposed rules that defer major decisions selectively, and there's uncertainty yet to resolve on how the new rules will take up the threads of older planning processes.

The AV Area Plan and Centennial

As previously reported at http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3587, the Regional Planning Commission approved the AV Area Plan September 27. Its accompanying Draft EIR remained open for comment until October 6 -- viewed as procedurally possible because the Commission's action September 27 was only a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors; the Supervisors bear responsibility for definitely approving the plan and certifying its EIR. which will probably occur at the same time. (Sitting as the Airport Land Use Commission, the Regional Planning Commission approved the plan's compatibility with relevant airport plans.)

The AV Area Plan, updating the existing 1986 General Plan component for the area, has been under review since 2008 in what has also been labeled the "Town and Country" planning process. However, new versions of the plan, and an extensive new Draft EIR, were published on a brisk schedule this summer, with the DEIR Notice of Preparation (NOP) posted June 12, revised planning documents posted July 23 and August 22, and the extensive DEIR documents posted August 22. (Comments on the AV Area Plan leading up to the September 27 hearing are labeled as "correspondence" and "supplemental package" documents as part of the meeting materials.)

The new plan would encourage the proposed Centennial development by establishing policy statements in favor of upzoning at the intended town site. However, it would not allow building permits to be granted for the new densities as of right. Centennial's proponents would still have to bring a more detailed proposal through a full specific plan review process -- and it's not clear when they will decide the time is ripe for them to follow through.

According to Child and Supervising Regional Planner Susan Tae, out of the three "Economic Opportunity Areas" (EOAs), only the west EOA, which includes the Centennial site, has a strict provision to ensure future review is coordinated. Any proposal to build more than five units of housing in the west EOA would trigger a requirement to begin a full specific plan coordinating infrastructure and environmental protections for the whole area. The county could also choose to begin a community plan there in the next five years. The published summary of September 27 changes to the AV Area Plan says affected properties in the west EOA are those of two particular owners: the Tejon Ranch Company and Bruce Burrows.

In the west EOA, the AV Area Plan sets as general policy the possibility of zoning levels up to maximum caps described in the Plan's Map 2.1. The green-veined yellow patches of H5 zoning (five housing units per acre) as shown in the map's upper left corner would be defined as generically appropriate for the east half of the proposed Centennial development site.

Later on, the actual zoning changes would need to be adopted legislatively as part of a future specific or community plan, and their exact values would depend on the overall design of the project as then proposed. (In a choice that confused some activists, the DEIR's Figure 3.7, at Page 27 of Chapter 3, sets out the lower A-2-10 "heavy agriculture" densities that would apply without a specific plan.) The Center for Biological Diversity has objected starting at the NOP stage to the use of any H5 zoning on the Centennial site.

As of a Tejon Ranch Co. amended 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission last March, the company was still discussing plans for 23,000 units of housing at Centennial. County planning staff say the maximum buildout under zoning envisoned by the AV Area Plan would be less -- more like 17,000 units -- but either would be a long way from the site's current population of zero. The Tejon Ranch Co. as of its March report held a 72.83% interest in the project's proponent entity, Centennial Founders, LLC, with minority partners Tri Pointe Homes (formerly Pardee Homes), Lewis Investment Company and Standard Pacific Corp. . (For prior discussion of Tejon Ranch real estate plans in the context of the Kern Water Bank EIR ruling see http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3597.)

SEA boundaries changing by stages

Proposed new SEA boundaries are important for Centennial and for the AV area plan in general. Although the new SEAs are larger, it's disputed whether they actually increase environmental protection. Where former SEAs required buffer zones to surround them, the new approach is to expand the defined boundaries to include buffer zones within them. Similar changes were already adopted in 2011 for the Santa Clarita Valley area, which includes the Newhall Ranch planned-town site. (See http://planning.lacounty.gov/sea/proposed.)

The Commission's September 27 action removed the SEA designation from a major area of the Centennial town site, between its east boundary at a farm road incongruously named "300th Street", and the west branch of the California Aqueduct, which forms a north-south divider across the site. (A separate SEA pullback limited barriers to development in the Central Economic Opportunity Area southwest of Edwards. For details see the September 27 summary document.)

Child wrote that the west EOA changes "aim to strike a balance between habitat conservation and environmental protection, and economic development that is important to the Antelope Valley and Los Angeles County as a whole. As the most valuable habitat and habitat linkage within this landholding is on the western end where the SEA designation remains, the area removed seems not as critical to the overall viability of SEA protections in the area."

But Greg Medeiros, vice president of the Centennial Founders LLC development entity, asked the Commission on October 8 to also remove SEA status from the area west of the Aqueduct, saying, "Both commercial and residential land use remain within the SEA overlay within the west EOA boundary. This commercial development is critical in developing a balanced community that can provide necessary services and jobs." He assured: "Removing the SEA designation does not mean that biological resources will be ignored. Project-level environmental review during site design within the EOAs will require avoidance and mitigation if necessary to comply with both CEQA and Fish and Wildlife permitting requirements."

Countywide, the proposed SEA changes have been divided among three different regulatory calendars: Some SEA boundary revisions that form part of the AV Area Plan will be before the Supervisors for approval November 12. SEA boundary changes elsewhere in the county go to the Regional Planning Commission as part of a General Plan update item December 10. Revisions to the current Draft 6 of the SEA Ordinance, which calls for protective measures to be determined in part by environmental reviews of each building site, were taken off calendar as of the Commission's October 8 meeting to allow more discussion.

The issues taken off calendar as "ordinance" matters include issues such as whether existing uses will be grandfathered. For example, at the October 8 hearing, Jeff Mace of ERA Energy asked if his company's 3000 acres of oil and gas wells and grazing land would be subject to new SEA requirements with effects such as new fencing requirements.

Some landowners saw the proposed environmental review process as a source of uncertainty. At the hearing, land use consultant Peter Gonzalez said he couldn't clearly advise a landowner on building rights in an SEA zone if a county biologist's review still had to determine each parcel's level of sensitivity under the proposed SEA ordinance. Marta Golding Brown, representing the Building Industry Association for Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, told the Commission that the proposed mitigation ratios were excessive in requiring up to four acres open space for one acre of disturbed land, and the SEA boundaries themselves were oversized: "The SEA expansion virtually walls off all unbuilt or remaining lands in the jurisdiction. As a result, future population growth will need to be accommodated by dramatically increasing densities in the existing developed areas." She urged the Commission to combine SEA and CEQA mitigation processes in a single procedure and closed with the comment, "Please reduce the SEA overlays in the county to those areas having biota to protect."

Environmental advocates weren't happy with the proposed SEA ordinance either: some said it had the unintended effect of elevating mitigation into a first choice for developers instead of encouraging them to avoid doing harm in the first place. Gary George of Audubon California told the Commission, "It's kind of a free pass straight to compensatory mitigation."

Another environmental concern was whether single-family homes ought to be exempted from SEA requirements, or whether they, too, should be required to reduce their footprints.

High SEAs


A perennial concern in northwestern LA County has been whether the SEAs in the high desert and mountains provide sufficient "connectivity" or "linkages" for wildlife to travel among the several types of habitat that converge in the area, especially where I-5 traverses the Grapevine. (A slightly dated but informative "connectivity and construction" map from April gives a sense of the principles guiding SEA designations.)

Child said a key purpose of updating the boundaries was to allow for linkages -- not necessarily to maintain land in "pristine" condition, but to allow for wildlife movement -- for example, by maintaining a corridor of grassland that might not itself be valuable habitat, but that would allow wildlife to move between developed areas.

For the Centennial site an added uncertainty for activists is whether currently envisioned planning processes will make use of the work already done in an SEA-related environmental advisory process on a prior Centennial specific plan effort that was begun in 2008 but then deferred.

As suggested by a 2008 Center for Biological Diversity press release, the SEATAC was sympathetic to critics who questioned not just how development might be made more eco-friendly at Centennial, but why any new project had to be built on the site.  The September 8, 2008, minutes of a SEATAC meeting on Centennial, still available on the county's site, shows a level of concerned review that gets literally into the weeds. The board discusses protection of grasslands, creekside habitat, watersheds and linkages, concerns about "leapfrog" developments surrounded by open space, the fortunes of species including badgers, lizards, owls, pumas, and the Tehachapi Pocket Mouse, a request to hear more about the futures of antelopes and raptors, and possible relocation of the Pacific Crest Trail onto the Tejon Ranch lands.

Child wrote: "The future level and scope of environmental/biological review in this area would not be less careful than the review by SEATAC in 2008. The project is still subject to CEQA requirements and the County's consultation with responsible and trustee agencies would ensure that the project identifies and mitigates for any and all potential environmental impacts, including biota. Comments received from SEATAC regarding the project specifically, and the general region as important habitat land, would still be applied in the review of the project." Tae wrote that where SEATAC review is currently required for all SEA Conditional Use Permits (CUPs), the new ordinance would direct some projects to the county biologist, and others to SEATAC, with SEATAC "considered the higher review".

Centennial's design was publicized more specifically before about 2008. The project stressed its environmental smart growth aspirations, discussing ways the project could be environmentally responsible and partly self-contained, even if residents commuted to jobs elsewhere. Now Centennial's main link from the Tejon Ranch Web site is a "Coming Soon" placeholder page. More detailed prior materials on the plan, including previews of the town's design, have been taken offline since last September. The Centennial Scout, a weblog formerly maintained for Centennial Founders, LLC by its community development manager, last posted in August 2011.

It remains uncertain when the Centennial Founders management may decide the time is right to go ahead with their specific plan. So it's clearly enough in the project's interest to lock in as many permissions as possible for the 20-year duration of a General Plan update. In the meantime, the Ranch's interest sounds warmer with respect to its more recently proposed Grapevine development in Kern County. The Tejon Ranch Co.'s amended 10-K as filed in March 2014 stated, "California regulatory dynamics may impact the future ability to entitle new development so we began the land planning and entitlement process for Grapevine during 2013 to take advantage of the existing favorable pro-business and political climate in Kern County."

The Tejon Ranch is the subject of a 2008 settlement in which five environmental groups, including the Sierra Club but not the Center for Biological Diversity, agreed not to oppose future development on the ranch in return for a conservation program affecting much of the Tejon Ranch land. Opposition to Centennial and other projects has been less widely expressed in the six years since then.

The March amended 10-K stated, "The Conservation Agreement we entered into with five major environmental organizations in 2008 is designed to minimize the opposition from environmental groups to these projects and eliminate or reduce the time spent in litigation once governmental approvals are received. Litigation by environmental groups has been a primary cause of delay and loss of financial value for real estate development projects in California."

Solar up next

On a slower schedule, hearings are expected this winter on a renewable energy land use ordinance for projects such as solar arrays. Tae wrote that the draft EIR would likely appear in November, with the Regional Planning Commission to take it up in January. Tae and Child wrote that the ordinance has to reach the Supervisors by March to help the county qualify for a grant out of the Renewable Resource Trust Fund related to Assembly Bill X1-13.

Child said there had been anxieties that a large-scale upzoning of about 190,000 acres to A-2, "heavy agriculture," in the Antelope Valley Area Plan would allow large solar arrays as of right. In fact he said that while A-2 zoning is a prerequisite for solar arrays, the ordinance would regulate such approvals and they would require conditional use permits to go through.

The county's public tally of proposed utility-scale renewable energy projects to date shows most such projects are solar; there have been a few wind turbine schemes. The renewable energy ordinance review will need to interact with the California and federal EIR/EIS for the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which was posted for review September 26. Major solar energy developers are among the commenters on early stages of the energy ordinance.

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