SPINEFLOWER REFUGE OK'D CHARGES AGAINST NEWHALL LAND DROPPED.
SANTA CLARITA - To avoid criminal charges, the area's largest developer is giving the state 64 acres of the proposed Newhall Ranch site to be used as a conservation area for an endangered flower, prosecutors announced Thursday.
The Newhall Land and Farming Co. agreed to turn over the areas known as the Grapevine and Airport mesas to the state Department of Fish and Game so officials can preserve and study the San Fernando spineflower, once thought extinct, according to the terms of a settlement. The developer has agreed to pay to maintain the property and to develop a management plan.
In exchange, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office dropped a misdemeanor charge against the company of illegally altering a stream bed and agreed not to file any new criminal or civil complaints regarding that issue, the agreement said. The company had faced a $1,000 fine.
``The perception has been that we are not being open about issues on our property, and I think this agreement clearly shows that not only are we willing to protect the spineflower, but we are also willing to make our property open,'' said Marlee Lauffer, Newhall Land spokeswoman. ``Everything we do is part of the public process. This agreement reflects our agreement to do so.''
The developer was charged in September with illegally altering a stream bed on the property that runs west of Six Flags California's Magic Mountain and near an old private airstrip.
The settlement also gives state officials access to the private property, which it previously wasn't granted, at any time with reasonable notice, the document said. Officials also will have access to final biological reports and original field notes related to future environmental surveys on the Newhall Ranch Specific Plan site as soon as the reports are completed.
The District Attorney's Office called the settlement a rare opportunity to help preserve the environment and study a plant that was thought to be extinct - the first time it's been a party to such agreement.
``We think that this is a really a major step in preserving the spineflower,'' said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office. ``We don't think the D.A.'s Office has been able to do this before. We feel the results we have been able to obtain outweigh the `iffyness' of a continuing investigation.''
The state will work with the developer to determine what will happen to the property, but officials said protecting the spineflower has been its primary focus since it launched an investigation into the destruction of the flower in November 2001.
``We are very happy that this has been resolved because it provides permanent protection for the spineflower when it wasn't there before,'' said Steve Martarano, Fish and Game spokesman. ``It's some of the most important population of the plant on the property.''
It's unclear how this settlement will affect plans for the 21,600-home Newhall Ranch project, Lauffer said. The developer had looked at building some residential homes on the 64 acres, but how many planned houses, businesses or roads were lost is unknown because tentative tract agreements had not been designed.
Those documents will be created after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approves the project. It is expected to vote on March 25.
``Newhall Ranch is still planned for 21,000 homes,'' Lauffer said.
The developer also is working with the National Resource Conservation Service on restoration of the airport mesa area, which has been graded for a field of agave plants, which are used to make tequila. That has been relocated on the Newhall Ranch property.
The settlement comes after Fish and Game officials scoured the Newhall Ranch site for evidence that the developer destroyed the endangered flower, court documents said. The state accused Newhall Land of knowingly destroying the spineflower on the property and believes the agave farm was actually an effort to rid the land of the flower. Prosecutors declined to file charges because the statute of limitations had run out.
Instead of pursuing what some prosecutors called a ``thin'' criminal case against the company, the District Attorney's Office took an opportunity to work with the developer to save an endangered species.
But Deputy District Attorney Diana Callaghan and Richard Sullivan, who originally were assigned the case, questioned their superiors' motives when they refused to sign search warrants for the offices of the developer and its attorneys, who included Robert Philibosian, a former district attorney.