The London Independent 11/15/98
From Andrew Gumbel in Santa Clarita, California
FROM HER canyon home, Barbara Wampole looks down on to a scene of breathtaking beauty: the floodplain of the Santa Clara river, thickly carpeted with cottonwood trees, and behind it the dramatic low peaks of the purplish-brown Santa Susana mountains.
Aside from the main road, route 126, and a straggly line of telephone wires running beside it, the only signs of human intrusion on this rural idyll are a handful of vegetable fields and a mass of orange groves stretching away to the west. This is the last unspoiled landscape left in the Los Angeles area, and the Santa Clara is the only major river in the county that has not been dammed, sucked dry or concreted over.
At least for now. For this river valley is turning into something of a final frontier between developers itching to turn it into Los Angeles' last suburb, and environmentalists like Mrs Wampole who are determined to preserve it at all costs.
"Living here makes me aware not only of the beauty of my surroundings, but also its fragility," said Mrs Wampole, a founding member of the Friends of the Santa Clara River, which is engaged in a David-and-Goliath struggle with the company that owns almost all the land in the area, Newhall Land and Farming. Newhall has grand plans to turn a five-mile stretch of the river into shops, businesses and housing for 70,000 people - a new town, or "series of villages" as the official literature has it, to be christened Newhall Ranch.
Despite promises to put nature at the centre of the project, the development would wipe out much of the valley's natural vegetation along with its rare bird life, draw on already dangerously over-exploited water supplies, and create traffic and pollution problems that would be felt for miles around. Already, route 126 is being widened from a two-lane to a four-lane highway in anticipation of the development.
At the eastern end of the proposed site, diggers are clearing vegetation on both sides of the river bank and building up 30-foot mounds of soil to get around planning regulations that define anything lower as a flooding hazard.
Despite lawsuits and endless public hearings, the company remains confident it can start building by the start of the new millennium and has already cleared many of the procedural hurdles. It should have little to fear from the environmentalists. After all, in the past 20 years it has managed to build up the town of Santa Clarita, a few miles to the east, from a sleepy hamlet of 20,000 to a sprawling expanse eight times that size. The swathe of strip malls and tract housing has colonised the upper Santa Clara river and stretches into hills once covered in clusters of rare valley oaks.
This is a pattern that has been repeated over and over in Los Angeles in the past century as it has grown from a small, Mediterranean-style colony to its ungainly present state as a byword for uncontrollable suburban sprawl. Farm land, coastal wetlands, river valleys and stretches of stunning mountain scenery - all have been sacrificed over the years to the great southern Californian building bonanza, with scant regard for environmental safeguards or the risk of flooding, brushfires, landslides or earthquakes.
Newhall, which is California's third-largest landowner, has behaved according to a long-standing tradition: tipping the local political establishment in its favour through campaign contributions to key candidates, dominating debate through advertising campaigns and ownership of the local paper, and crushing any rivals through relentless negative campaigning.
"There are any number of solid reasons why this project should not go ahead, and yet the Los Angeles County supervisors don't ever seem able to say no," said Lynne Plambeck, a Santa Clarita environmentalist and water expert. "We are told we need this new housing to accommodate the growing population, but the emphasis is never on solidifying the urban structure that we have. It is always on building further and further afield."
To drive down the Santa Clara valley while it remains pristine is to go back in time. This must be what the Hollywood Hills looked like before the arrival of the movie moguls and their mansions, or the San Fernando Valley in the days before the developers and the city fathers figured out their crooked scheme to divert enough water from the farmlands of central California to be able to concrete over the orange groves.
The prospects are not relentlessly gloomy, however. Further down the Santa Clara valley, across the Ventura County line, the electorate has just approved a series of local ballot initiatives that effectively take development decisions out of the hands of the politicians by making any changes to urban limits or land-use permits subject to a popular vote.
This marks a big victory for the environmentalists, particularly since the Ventura County voters were largely motivated by fear of what developments like Newhall Ranch might bring to their side of the county line. Ventura County has been largely spared suburban blight, thanks to its rugged landscapes and strong agricultural traditions. There are still fears it might go the way of the rest of southern California, but the election result suggests that a line has been drawn in the concrete - for the time being at least.
Copyright 1998 The London Independent