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PLAN MAPPED OUT FOR NEW COUNTY; HIGH DESERT AREA WOULD CONTAIN 1 MILLION PEOPLE.

Byline: Charles F. Bostwick Daily News Staff Writer

State Sen. W.J. ``Pete'' Knight unveiled a plan for a new county that would contain close to 1 million people and stretch 230 miles from Gorman to the Nevada border.

The area's communities in general share similar demographics and concerns, like large numbers of commuters who moved out of urban areas, and suffer overall neglect from their county seats, said Knight, R-Palmdale.

``The object of this bill is the eventual formation of a new county to be more responsive to the population of the High Desert,'' Knight said. ``I think the urban areas in support of the High Desert areas have not been as responsive as they should be.''

The proposed High Desert County's biggest centers of population would be the Antelope Valley with some 350,000 people and Victor Valley with close to 300,000.

But the vast majority of its territory would lie in sparsely populated northern San Bernardino County, taking in the 3-year-old Mojave National Preserve, the Army's Fort Irwin training center and even the southern edge of Death Valley National Park.

Its largest and smallest cities would lie at the far ends of the county, which would be 230 miles long and 70 miles wide at its extremes: Santa Clarita, with a population of 150,000 abutting the San Fernando Valley, and Needles, population 6,000 on the Colorado River.

Two of those areas have tried but failed to set up their own counties: the Santa Clarita Valley, which in 1978 tried to form Canyon County, and the Victor Valley region, which in 1988 tried to break off the desert portion of the San Bernardino County to create Mojave County.

Palmdale City Councilwoman Shelly Sorsabal, who appeared at Knight's news conference announcing the bill, said she believes the new county would give its residents more attention than they now get from county officials in Los Angeles, Bakersfield or San Bernardino.

An example of present neglect, she said, is Los Angeles County's slowness at replacing the overcrowded Lancaster Courthouse - so busy that all civil cases must be sent to Los Angeles or elsewhere, but not scheduled for replacement for more than 15 years.

``We suffer from geographic and socioeconomic isolation,'' Sorsabal said. ``The larger cities dominate services and High Desert residents are taxed for services they do not see.''

Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford says Knight's proposal ``on the surface . . . has merit,'' but he is also concerned that the new county could find itself as financially strapped as existing counties.

But Ledford does not see the vast expanse of the new county as necessarily bad. Most of the communities share common problems, he said.

``We share a lot of commonalities with other communities in the High Desert, and it would be a good forum to coordinate how we evolve,'' Ledford said. ``It's tough when you're in Los Angeles to get them to understand our needs and concerns.''

Knight's bill, which would eliminate the signature-collecting step required to get the proposal on the ballot, would have to get past state and county lawmakers who will fight to keep Santa Clarita, Lancaster and Palmdale in Los Angeles County, Victor Valley in San Bernardino County and Mojave and California City in Kern County.

After all, the tax money residents in those areas generate for their respective counties is too much to give up easily.

Knight claims the communities within his proposed county do not get their fair share of services from their respective counties, considering what they contribute in tax revenue.

Knight said he plans to draft an amendment to the California Constitution next year if his county bill is successful. The amendment would change voting procedures for forming a new county, allowing only people within the boundary to vote on the matter. The amendment would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

As the law currently exists, all voters in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Kern counties would be able to cast a ballot on whether to form High Desert County.

Knight downplayed questions of whether the far-flung borders means the new county would leave residents just as far from county government decision-makers as they are know.

In tiny Needles, City Manager Tom Parry said the decision on backing the new county hinges on its financial strength, and whether it could provide better services than the community gets now from San Bernardino County.

No vote could come earlier than 1999, but it could be a decade before the issue goes before voters, Knight representatives said.

CAPTION(S):

Photo, Map

PHOTO State Sen. W.J. ``Pete'' Knight discusses his plan for a proposed High Desert County at Santa Clarita City Hall on Friday.

John Lazar/Special to the Daily News

MAP: (Color) no caption (proposed High Desert County and new boundaries)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 21, 1998
Words:799
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