Lynne Plambeck: Environmental deal with developer troubling

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Most everyone in the Santa Clarita Valley is aware of the huge Newhall Ranch project. It is a massive proposal located along the Santa Clara River, Los Angeles County’s last free flowing river just west of the I-5 on Hwy 126. It will pave over 1,500 acres of prime farmland, fill the flood plain with 7 million cubic yards of dirt, levy a portion of the river and concrete tributaries, some of the very things that the City of Los Angeles is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to undo along the Los Angeles River.
Several environmental groups from outside our area have just signed a settlement agreement with the developer of Newhall Ranch plus additional proposals, totaling 26,000 units. The agreement, accepted by these groups, gave them $15 million dollars for a conservation fund, and substantial additional amenities. In exchange the groups will cease all litigation, tell public agencies that they no longer oppose the next 26,000 units to be approved decades into the future in one of the most sensitive areas of the

Santa Clara River, and agree not to comment on these future projects. Of course there was nothing in this agreement that precluded them from commenting on FivePoint’s housing competitors. What a deal for them!

SCOPE and the Friends of the Santa Clara did not sign this agreement.

Why not? SCOPE felt that this was a Faustian bargain incompatible with our mission statement, our advocacy for public involvement and our commitment to the public discussion that is necessary to keep our democracy healthy. It violated our pledge to protect the Santa Clara River, its treasure trove of habitat and rare and endangered species, and our water supply.

Yes, we know that in our current society it is very difficult to win against the big money interests of national development corporations, oil companies or the big banks. It is a David and Goliath battle. But isn’t our very democracy about trying?

Since 2000 such agreements to no longer speak out have become common. Developers and their sophisticated attorneys decided it was cheaper to pay out for silence then continue the expensive and unpredictable public debate.

It is the requirement for silence, the effective and complete muzzling of public interest groups who have received public support based on their promise to defend such issues, that makes such deals particularly troubling. Just as insidious, are the often successful efforts to get those groups to muzzle others.

For example, as the huge Centennial project recently came before the county for review, the Sierra Club reminded members that they cannot comment on this project due to a 2008 agreement made with its’ developer in exchange for a large conservation easement. The deal went further, also requiring that reports on the area be kept confidential. The Center for Biological Diversity did not sign that agreement.

Now, ironically, a letter from the Center recently published in the Signal spoke out about Centennial as urban sprawl, urging people to comment on the huge project at the same time they have agreed to go silent on Newhall Ranch.

Some groups may feel development setbacks or conservation funds are worth the trade off. Or, a group may be forced to settle when it can no longer fund the enormous legal expenses, or the court case is lost.

When major issues like water supply, traffic and air pollution remain unanswered, community groups do their best to demand that such issues be addressed by all the public means available to them, including the court system. But it remains a David and Goliath battle fraught with Faustian bargains. Is this just the art of compromise, or is it something more sinister? When the public loses its voice, is that really a win?

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE).

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