Nestled in the far northern fringes of Los Angeles County, the undeveloped plains of Tejon Ranch are a portal back to California’s earliest days. One of the last of the native grasslands that used to cover the state, the ranch’s 270,000 acres of gently sloping hills and golden, oak-dappled meadows are a haven for hundreds of native plant and animal species, including several on the national endangered species list. But soon, all of that might change.
In April, after decades of debate over the land’s fate, the county approved a plan to build a 6,700-acre development on the privately owned property. Called Centennial, the master-planned city would bring 19,000 mostly single-family homes and 8.4 million square feet of commercial space to the remote area—a move that some environmentalists worry would result in massive habitat loss and pollution.
On Tuesday, the California Native Plant Society and the Center For Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the County Board of Supervisors, claiming their approval of the Centennial project violated the state’s Environmental Quality Act. The suit asks that the approval be overturned, and that development be halted until a new, more accurate review is completed.
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Opponents of the project cite carbon emissions as one of their largest concerns. Aside from the fact Tejon is 65 miles from L.A., which would require the county to construct a six-lane freeway extension, single-family communities like the one this one have a much larger carbon footprint then denser urban developments. “We’re continuing with business as usual in approving these large-scale developments that are going to have far-reaching impacts on air pollution and the climate,” says J.P. Rose, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s just entirely the wrong direction for L.A. County and the state.”
Rose says that the project would also block a key connectivity corridor between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Southern Ranges in the Angeles National Forest. “That connectivity is really important for iconic California species like the mountain lion that need to roam large distances to maintain their genetic diversity throughout the state,” he says.
Humans could be at risk too—the development would be located in a high-fire zone, which raised concerns in the wake of the Camp and Woolsey conflagrations. According to the Los Angeles Times, Cal Fire recorded 31 wildfires larger than 100 acres within the area between 1964 to 2015. “It’s just extremely reckless planning,” says Rose.
The two organizations who filed Tuesday’s suit have been some of the most outspoken critics of Centennial in recent years. In 2008, the Center for Biological Diversity opted out of an agreement the Tejon Ranch Company signed with several other major environmental groups—including Audubon California and the Sierra Club—in which they promised to conserve 90 percent of the ranchland if criticism of Centennial was withheld.
When the Native Plant Society and the Center for Biological Diversity continued to oppose the development, the Tejon Company banned them and many of their affiliates from visiting, which has prevented a large number of scientists from conducting research in the rare habitat. “They’re blacklisting people for daring to suggest an opinion about this development that’s going to radically reshape northern L.A. County,” says Rose.
In statement released Tuesday, the Tejon Ranch Company deemed the Native Plant Society and the Center For Biological Diversity “radical environmental groups,” and argued that its development would help bring much-needed housing to the region. “To stand in the way of an approved development that will bring thousands of much-needed price-attainable homes to Southern California families who are struggling to find housing they can afford is yet one more stark example of CBD’s ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ mentality,” the statement says.
Rose has high hopes that the suit will put the plans on pause. While sending the project back to the board for approval might not block development forever, it will at least protect the land for the time being. “Ninety nine percent of California’s native grasslands have already been destroyed by development,” he says. “This would destroy a good chunk of that remaining 1 percent. We would be losing an irreplaceable environmental resource.”
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