A proposed 5,800-unit housing development in the rugged hills between the San Fernando Valley and Santa Clarita is generating controversy, intergovernmental friction and litigation even before an environmental impact report has been produced.

The Las Lomas project is proposed for a 555-acre wedge of land between Interstate 5 and Highway 14. Proponents are billing it as a dense, transit-oriented, mixed-use, environmentally friendly infill project in an area with a great housing demand. Opponents, including the City of Santa Clarita, say the project will overwhelm streets and highways, alter already unstable hillsides and cut off a wildlife corridor.

In an interesting twist, developers Las Lomas Land Company LLC, led by Dan S. Palmer Jr. of Santa Monica, have filed an application with the City of Los Angeles. However, it is the City of Santa Clarita — and not Los Angeles — that has filed an application to annex the territory, according to Sandy Winger, deputy executive officer of the Los Angeles County Local Agency Formation Commission. Shortly after Santa Clarita filed an application with LAFCO about one year ago, the developers sued the city to block the action. Santa Clarita's application to annex 825 acres, including most of the Las Lomas site, is be held in abeyance until the litigation is resolved, Winger said.

Nevertheless, the City of Los Angeles is processing an application for a specific plan, a general plan amendment, zoning changes, a vesting tentative tract map and a development agreement. The city and its consultant, ESA Associates, began work on the EIR in mid-2002. The document will probably be released in the first half of this year, said Maya Zaitzevsky, of the Los Angeles planning department's environmental review section. She called the EIR "an expensive document" that would address many issues, but she declined to discuss project specifics until the document is made public.

"I'm sure there will be a lot of tweaking to the specific plan once the EIR process is complete," Zaitzevsky said.

It does not appear, however, that tweaking will satisfy project opponents. Lynne Plambeck, president of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment called the project "terrible" and said the site should remain in its largely undeveloped state. She listed traffic, the potential loss of a wildlife corridor between the Santa Susanna Mountains and the San Gabriel Mountains, and air pollution as major concerns.

"I think the thing that's most frightening about it is that the area is so unstable," Plambeck said. "What happens when the houses fall down in 20 years? The whole reason for planning is to make sure you don't do something like that and you protect future residents."

An overpass at the junction of I-5 and Highway 14, which is less than one mile from the project site, has collapsed twice because of earthquakes, most recently during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. State Department of Conservation maps do not show a fault on the 555-acre Las Lomas property. However, territory that qualifies as "special study areas" under the Alquist-Priolo Act appears to surround the property. And Department of Conservation maps do indicate that landslides encumber the property.

Indeed, landslides are easily visible from nearby roads. Development on the steeply sloping site is proposed to include 20 million cubic yards of grading, which would have a substantial visual impact, said Vince Bertoni, Santa Clarita's interim planning director.

"It's a very challenging site to develop," said Bertoni, noting that the city's general plan designates the property for large-lot residential development.

The site belongs in the City of Santa Clarita's boundaries because three-fourths of it is in Santa Clarita school districts, Bertoni said. The city boundaries lie just to the north and east of the site. Plus, the city's parks and streets would serve the new residents, Bertoni added.

Moreover, the proposed project appears to conflict with the city's hillside and ridgeline development regulations, and with the city's oak preservation ordinance. Santa Clarita officials have insisted on creating a greenbelt around the city, and the Las Lomas site is about all the separates Santa Clarita from the north end of Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley. One complicating factor in the jurisdictional battle: Santa Clarita was created without a sphere of influence and LAFCO has been reluctant to provide the city of 160,000 people with a sphere of influence (see CP&DR Local Watch, January 2001).

Developer Dan Palmer and Santa Clarita have a long and uneasy history, even though Palmer has developed hundreds of housing units within the city. Palmer campaigned against the city's 1987 incorporation — which city leaders have never forgotten — and Palmer has had conflicts with Santa Clarita schools over development impact fees.

Palmer did not return CP&DR telephone calls. But Las Lomas architect Richardson Robertson III said project opponents are a minority that only wants to stop growth. Robertson said Las Lomas will feature multiple story buildings with a mix of uses, a street orientation, a town center overlooking I-5, distinctive architecture that compliments the natural setting, and several transit options.

"It would not look like Santa Clarita at all. It would not look like suburbia," said Robertson, who compared his design to Santa Barbara's State Street. "When we get finished, it will look like Las Lomas has always been there."

In addition to 5,800 dwelling units, the project is proposed to contain 2.3 million square feet of office and research and development space, 225,000 square feet of retail development, and a 300-room hotel and spa. The proposal further includes a variety of public facilities, including a K-8 school, a library, a museum and a wastewater treatment plant.

About half of the land would remain undeveloped and, in fact, wildlife habitat and visual qualities would be improved, said Robertson, countering opponents' concerns. Very little of the project will be visible from the adjacent freeways, and most of what passersby see would look better than it does today, he contended.

As for transportation, proponents hope to have a MetroLink commuter rail station because MetroLink already runs through the property. An internal trolley system is also proposed, as is a connection to Santa Clarita's bus system. In fact, proponents are pushing the project as a transit-oriented development that makes a great deal of automobile travel unnecessary, and they have approached the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority about transit plans.

But detractors have their doubts about whether a large housing and office development lying between two Southern California freeways will do anything but generate more automobile trips.

Although the City of Los Angeles could conduct public hearings as early as this spring, no one appears to believe that development will be clear to proceed anytime soon.

Richardson Robertson III, Robertson Partners, (310) 208-4200.
Vince Bertoni, City of Santa Clarita, (661) 255-4365.
Maya Zaitzevsky, City of Los Angeles, (213) 978-1355.
Lynne Plambeck, Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, (661) 255-6899.