It was both a surprise and a forehead-slapping big “duh” when the owner of Newhall Ranch and a coalition of environmental groups announced a joint agreement allowing construction to move ahead on the 21,000-home project – and also provide a series of additional protections for the land. A surprise because the battle has waged through courtroom after courtroom so long it seems an inevitable force of nature in the Santa Clarita Valley – like tornadoes in the Midwest or hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. The Newhall Ranch proposal was introduced in the 1980s and has been bandied about in courtrooms and public hearing rooms since the ‘90s at least. Also a surprise because SCV environmentalists don’t seem like the negotiating type. They’ve won enough court battles to keep alive the hope of those who would rather not see another Valencia-sized planned community wedged into the northwest Santa Clarita Valley, pouring more commuters onto Interstate 5, cramming more traffic onto SCV streets, fouling more air and increasing crime rates. It’s also a big “duh” because it answers the question: “Where else can the issue go from here?” It’s been battled to the state Supreme Court, been resolved at that level, according to the court – then handed back down eventually to land on the desks of the five Los Angeles County supervisors. They had little recourse but to approve Newhall Ranch, as their predecessors did concerning a much-modified version years ago, unless they wanted to declare broken the system of growth and development in the county that allows for such projects. FivePoint Holdings LLC, which owns and seeks to develop Newhall Ranch, has agreed to provide about $25 million for conservation efforts under the deal announced Sept. 25. Much of the controversy around the project has focused on its location – the Santa Clara River floodplain – and the array of unique and endangered species that flourish there. In the agreement FivePoint said it would move its massive new development back from the last free-flowing river in Southern California to preserve 55 acres of floodplain, including habitat for the endangered unarmored threespine stickleback fish and the San Fernando Valley spineflower. The developer also signed a separate agreement with the Wishtoyo Foundation, a nonprofit Native American organization, to provide land and construct a cultural center somewhere on the site. The specific cost and location of that project haven’t been released. The scope of developer concessions is staggering and may well present a precedent for future large developments. In return for those concessions, the coalition of environmental groups that signed on to the historic agreement – the Center for Biological Diversity, the Wishtoyo Foundation/Ventura Coastkeeper, the California Native Plant Society and the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians – agreed to drop its lawsuit against FivePoint’s planned development, which takes in not only 21,000 homes but also schools, recreation centers and 13 million square feet of commercial space. The groups also agreed not to speak out against Newhall Ranch again. It was a practical move by the environmental groups, since the Newhall Ranch land inside Los Angeles County is destined by lack of strict county regulations for anything other than eventual development. Both sides of the deal are to be commended. But so, too, are two holdouts among the environmental groups. The Santa Clarita Valley Organization for Planning and the Environment, or SCOPE, and Friends of the Santa Clara River – both of which have also battled Newhall Ranch for decades – declined to join in the agreement. For Lynne Plambeck, president of SCOPE, it’s a matter of serving the public. The holdout groups were convinced joining the agreement would silence public discussion about the project, and that public discussion is necessary to keep our democracy healthy. “Since 2000 such agreements to no longer speak out have become common,” Plambeck wrote in a column published in The Signal Sept. 27. “Developers and their sophisticated attorneys decided it was cheaper to pay out for silence than continue the expensive and unpredictable public debate,” she wrote, noting such an expansive agreement was reached in 2008 with the Tejon Ranch Co over its planned development, Centennial. We commend FivePoint and the groups that negotiated the deal. The agreement is necessary. More housing is desperately needed in the area and this agreement assures responsible development of that new housing. But we also appreciate and support the right of SCOPE and Friends of the Santa Clara River to preserve their free speech.