Inside Santa Clarita’s debate on open space

by Faris Soudani 863 views0

At first look, the city of Santa Clarita appears to have been built in the middle of what was recently just wilderness. The city has been shaped from nothing but open plains and empty fields to clusters of malls and family residences in less than 50 years.

The bordering city of Los Angeles, with a longer history, has no remnants of the land it was previously developed on. To catch a glimpse of what the natural land of the community looked like, one must travel to a designated spot the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy maintains as open space. In the inner city or at the center of the San Fernando Valley, the natural landscape is unrecognizable due to long-term urbanization.

Although the development of Santa Clarita has come at a rapid rate, the city does take steps to enact conscious efforts to preserve the land.

One of the contributing factors to a population’s happiness is the availability of natural space within a town or city. According to a study conducted by the U.N. Sustainable Solutions Development Network called the World Happiness Report, the well-being of a city’s population was rated on six factors: GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption and generosity.

What the study does not include as a factor of happiness, yet mentions in each of the rated cities is the amount of natural space a given population has.

As the second happiest city, the report states that “Oslo, Norway, the quietest of the Scandinavian capitals, is also arguably the closest to nature, sitting at the northern end of Oslofjord and backed by forests and mountains.”

As for their Swiss neighbors, “for a quieter Switzerland experience, head to the car-free village of Appenzell (population 7,000) and its extensive network of hiking trails.”

“Show me a healthy community with a healthy economy and I will show you a community that has its green infrastructure in order and understands the relationship between the built and the unbuilt environment,” said Will Rogers, world renown celebrity of the 1930s.

A notably researched topic in Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet by Jeffrey Sachs finds that the higher a population density for a living space, the more agitated a population become towards one another, demonstrating erratic behavior.

One consequence of the loss of open land is the disappearance of animal and plant life. The flora and fauna of an area help promote the sustainability of the land, but the unique species that live in an area become endangered, or extinct, if too much land dissapears.

In 1992, Los Angeles County voted in favor of the Westridge Proposal to develop housing, shops and a golf course in one of the county’s significant ecological Areas located in Santa Clarita. The project covered 800 acres and included the removal of 152 oak trees. The golf course replaced the area’s oak savanna, one of just three on the planet.

These areas are not prohibited from being developed on but deemed of important biological resources in which it is important to facilitate a balance of limited development and resource conservation.

“It is the most environmentally sensitive project we have ever proposed,” said Thomas L. Lee, Chairman of Newhall Land and Farming Company, the company behind the development.

The Newhall Ranch Project, a proposed master-plan community similar to the Westridge proposal, has been in the works since 1980 but still faces legal battles that hinder development. A number of Santa Clarita residents, Ventura county officials and Native American tribes have expressed their disapproval for the project receiving a green-light from city planners.

Development along the Santa Clara River, one of Southern California’s most dynamic least altered rivers, would strain a population of endangered flora and fauna including the California Condor, the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and the San Fernando Valley Spine Flower among other species. The land has supplied humans with water, fish and fertile farmland throughout history and has provided habitat for a wide scope of plants and animals native to the area.

“They’re just starting construction on it now and I see them building new foundations and digging out dirt on the river valley and I just scratch my head and go ‘why on earth are you 1, building in a floodplain and 2, building near a dump?’” said Ron Entrekin, communications professor at COC, who lives along the 126 highway where development has begun.

“Let’s say we have an earthquake, not that we will have one, when we have one because we are overdue for that great quake; what’s going to happen to the water behind Castaic when Castaic breaks? It’s going to go right down the valley. Talk about an area to me that’s perfect for open space – that would be it.”

View from Las Lomas, one of the lands protected under Mayor Weste’s efforts.

Throughout her tenure, Santa Clarita Mayor Laurene Weste has worked to contribute thousands of acres of land as open space. In the summer of 2012 the city initiated the purchase of 1,000 acres of open space preserves throughout Towsley and Placerita Canyon and in 2014, just in the month of October, 400 acres of wild land were put into public ownership. This past month Weste held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for an additional 114 acres set for protection in Towsley Canyon.

Serving on the board for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy,  has been one of Weste’s objectives to provide Santa Clarita with a “green belt of open land” surrounding the city. She also opposes development on the Santa Clara river.

A natural and historical landmark for the city is Old Glory, the largest tree ever to be transplanted according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Situated in Pico Canyon park, the oak tree was over 458 tons when transplanted.

Old Glory has been fenced off since its relocation to the Santa Clarita neighborhood for cautions of falling limbs, as is common with oak trees. It was originally a concern that the move would have been too stressful for the tree inclining limbs to break off but this has not been the case. Even though Old Glory has been declared a safe and healthy tree, the fence barrier remains in its place.

Along with rising energy demands and a growing population, the conservation of land is up there among issues of 21st century changes.

With Santa Clarita making its attempts at preserving a greenbelt for future generations, what is the standard in this ever-changing landscape around the globe? “There is a lot of open space here already. Is it enough for environmentalists? No, they want everything open. Is it enough for development? Oh, it’s way too much,” Entrekin said.

A happy medium is needed to ensure both sensitive and biologically resourceful land is protected and the economy, along with a growing population, is satisfied.

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