It’s hard to believe that anything could halt urban sprawl in Los Angeles County, but it looks like the job has been done — by a flower.
The gravely endangered San Fernando Valley Spineflower, with help from environmental organizations and indigenous tribes, faced down a builder who wants to erect a sprawling development in Newhall Ranch along the Santa Clara River. The Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Santa Clara River, Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment (SCOPE), Wishtoyo Foundation, Ventura Coastkeeper and California Native Plant Society teamed up to take Newhall Land and the state of California to court for violating laws protecting endangered species.
The San Fernando Valley Spineflower is so rare that it was long believed extinct until it was rediscovered in 1999. It exists in only two places — and one of them is Newhall Ranch.
Two other endangered species, both fish, also live in the Newhall Ranch footprint: the unarmored threespine stickleback and the southern California steelhead trout. Like the Spineflower, these species are protected by the California Endangered Species Act.
That law requires developer Newhall Land to prove to the state that the project’s effects on these species would be minor. Though the 11,999-acre development, which would bring over 60,000 residents into the area, would destroy a quarter of the Spineflower’s habitat, the state approved the Newhall Ranch plan as minimally harmful to endangered species.
The team of environmental and indigenous organizations that took on the developer and the state disagreed with this approval. They felt that the project would do unacceptable damage to the Spineflower and the two endangered fish species, and on top of that, that it would destroy Native American Chumash and Tataviam cultural resources. So they went to court.
In a 38-page opinion the judge shut down the development project, at least for now, in order to protect the endangered species from extinction and the tribal cultural sites from destruction.
The judge’s order halting the development in its tracks may not survive an appeal by the developer, which plans to challenge it in a higher court. Even if the Spineflower and its friends win the appeal, that does not mean the saga, which began when Newhall Land first submitted a development plan to the county in 1994, is at an end. The judge didn’t just order the builder not to start work: she also ordered it to make a second pass at complying with the Endangered Species Act. This time the developer would have to modify its plans to dramatically reduce damage to the three protected species and to indigenous cultural sites, and the state would have to hold it to a higher standard in this regard.
The chair of Friends of the Santa Clara River found this ruling “very gratifying,” because it “will finally compel the [state] and Newhall Land to address the project’s devastating effects on endangered species and on the Santa Clara River as they never have been addressed before, and to seriously consider alternative plans that can avoid these effects.”
Wishtoyo’s executive director, a Chumash ceremonial elder, also praised the court’s ruling, saying that “the law protected our culture, ancestors, and resources as the legislature intended.”
Photo credit: David Magney