Last week the Los Angeles County Local Agency Formation Commission – or LAFCO for short – voted to continue to oppose Senate Bill 634, Sen. Scott Wilk’s water merger/takeover of Newhall County Water District. Commissioners were concerned that the bill, promoted by Castaic Lake Water Agency and carried by the Antelope Valley Republican, did not address many of the problems they would normally review as part of their mandate to oversee annexations and reorganizations of local government agencies. Having served as an alternate board member for special districts on LAFCO in the late 1990s, I can attest to the important, although somewhat obscure, service this state agency provides. The preamble of LAFCO’s enabling act reads in part: “The Legislature finds and declares that it is the policy of the state to encourage orderly growth and development which are essential to the social, fiscal, and economic well-being of the state. “The Legislature recognizes that the logical formation and determination of local agency boundaries is an important factor in promoting orderly development and in balancing that development with sometimes competing state interests of discouraging urban sprawl, preserving open-space and prime agricultural lands, and efficiently extending government services. “The Legislature also recognizes that providing housing for persons and families of all incomes is an important factor in promoting orderly development. “ LAFCOs throughout the state are concerned with urban sprawl, leapfrog development and local agency organization/ when development sprawls out, new and expensive services must be provided. This usually raises the cost of housing and resources – and probably our taxes, as well. It is LAFCO’s job to make sure services such as transportation, water and sewer are adequate to serve the new area. For decades we have understood that urban sprawl is not the best way to develop housing in heavily populated California. It creates traffic problems and air pollution. The housing is often more expensive due to the heavy financial investment needed for new infrastructure. Also, it is more expensive to the individual when transportation costs of long commutes are factored in, not to mention the intangible costs to health and family of long hours sitting cooped up in a car on the freeway. A 1987 LAFCO review is what finally determined that we had adequate finances and infrastructure to stand on our own feet and create our city of Santa Clarita. In 2004, after a review of Newhall County Water District, LAFCO determined that this well-run local district was efficiently providing services to all its customers and approved NCWD’s current borders. What has all this got to do with Wilk’s bill, which proposes to merge Castaic Lake Water Agency with Newhall County Water District? It seeks to eliminate many of the protections that LAFCO review would afford Newhall water customers and, perhaps even more worrisome, eliminate review for Valencia Water Company entirely. Instead of just following the existing, well-thought-out legislation of the Knox-Cortese Hertzberg Act, SB634 picks and chooses which parts of this four-decades-old Act the water agencies will agree to follow, essentially re-writing the law to accommodate what they want to do with as little public oversight as possible. First, while stating that Los Angeles County Waterworks District 36 and Newhall County Water District will be subject to some LAFCO regulation, Wilk’s bill specifically requires that Valencia Water Company will not have to follow the LAFCO process. Castaic Lake Water Agency will be allowed to just take over the area without any of the legally required LAFCO reviews that are now mandated for all service area extensions. One of those reviews is for adequate water supply to serve new area extensions. So it appears that Valencia Water would completely evade public review and safeguards for the 20,000 or so units of Newhall Ranch and other tracts that are currently not in its service area. Does this seem fair to existing residents in the Santa Clarita Valley? All other developers must go through such reviews; why would Newhall Land/Lennar Corp be allowed to avoid this law? Then, although new amendments to SB634 now state that Newhall water will be subject to LAFCO, the water agencies made sure that LAFCO will only be allowed to enact what is already contained in the bill. Additionally, LAFCO is prohibited from allowing a condition to require a vote by the residents of Newhall County Water District that would give them a say on whether they want their water district dissolved. Newhall Water District customers previously had the right to referendum any LAFCO decisions they didn’t like. But this language was specifically removed from existing law by one of the new amendments in SB634 – at the water district’s request. Who are these agencies watching out for? It is certainly not you and me. Allowing local agencies to run to the state Legislature to pick and choose which parts of state law they will agree to abide by is just plain wrong, and it sets a bad precedent for others seeking to do the same. No wonder the Los Angeles County LAFCO continues to withhold its support for this bill.