Leon Worden

Postwar growth of the Santa Clarita Valley

By Leon Worden

February 19, 1997

ou could argue that the die was cast for the Santa Clarita Valley when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. A nation of fighting men shipped out from seaports and airfields all over sunny California, and when they returned to their Iowa farms and Kansas wheat fields they remembered what they had seen here.
    America experienced a massive westward migration as wave after wave of ex-GIs and their young brides flocked to Southern California, where housing was affordable, jobs plentiful, the weather warm and opportunities limitless. It wasn't long before the baby boom was in full swing.
    The town of Newhall was a sleepy whistle stop along Southern Pacific's Los Angeles to San Francisco run. Saugus was a conglomeration of family ranches that spanned much of the Santa Clarita Valley, just a hop and a skip from the burgeoning San Fernando Valley.
    Not surprisingly, the company that owned half the land in our valley wanted a piece of the action. Bad financial decisions that were made some decades earlier, when the company was run more like a family plaything than a business, had driven its owners to the brink of insolvency. The new management was not about to repeat past mistakes.
    Atholl McBean had taken the helm of The Newhall Land and Farming Company in 1933, and two years later oil was discovered on the property. Some family members didn't share McBean's vision or take well to his hard-line style, but in time, he had turned the company into a profitable cattle ranching, vegetable and citrus farming, and oil and gas producing enterprise.
    The westward migration after World War II showed no signs of weakening in the 1950s. The Los Angeles County board of supervisors decided to welcome the population explosion by changing the property taxation structure in a way that encouraged residential development. Land would now be taxed at its highest and best use. Parcels designated "residential" would be taxed at residential rates, even if their owners were still using them for farming or ranching.
    If The Newhall Land and Farming Company was to be taxed at the higher residential rates, then there was only one prudent thing for Atholl McBean to do: Turn his old ranch lands into residential neighborhoods. Bill Bonelli was already doing it on a smaller scale in Saugus, and others would follow suit in Soledad Canyon.
    McBean commissioned a team of city planners to design a comprehensive "New Town" with all the dwellings, stores, job sites, governmental services, places of worship, medical and educational facilities and other amenities that a large community of baby booming families would need.
    Meanwhile, several things were going on simultaneously to pave the way for growth. In 1960, California voters passed the state's biggest-ever bond measure to bring "State Water" south from the Feather River. Locally, the Upper Santa Clara Water Agency, now known as the Castaic Lake Water Agency, was formed to tap into the State Water Project and ensure a reliable supply of potable water for the valley.
    In 1965, the Newhall-Saugus area became much more accessible to Angelenos when one of the chief architects of the California we know today, Governor Pat Brown, replaced old Highway 99 with a new Interstate freeway.
    You know the rest of the story. Growth came — not just to areas owned by Newhall Land, but also to an adjacent area newly renamed "Canyon Country," as the influx of war veterans and baby boomers made land more desirable throughout the entire valley.
    In a manner of speaking, every growth-related decision by any local planner or politician since 1965 — every last one — has been little more than a minor tweaking. The real decisions were made long before most of us arrived. They were made by victorious troops returning home from battle. They were made by prudent land owners who understood the implications of tax code changes. They were made by the voters of California, and they were made by the governor who really built the roads and bridges to the 21st Century.
    The story of the Santa Clarita Valley since World War II is more than a story of simple supply and demand. It is a story of manifest destiny.

Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears Wednesdays.

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