Greens Fight Giant Development in Kern County

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — The Center for Biological Diversity challenged Kern County’s approval of a enormous, long-planned community in the southern San Joaquin Valley, claiming it will cause a slew of environmental problems that the county’s studies failed to address.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety sued the county and its Board of Supervisors on Jan. 5 in Superior Court, asking that construction on Grapevine at Tejon Ranch be enjoined until the county’s studies comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.

“This project definitely represents outdated planning principles,” attorney John Rose, house counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity, told Courthouse News. “With the threat of climate change, we can’t afford to be building more sprawling developments far from city centers.”

The project, proposed by real parties in interest Tejon RanchCorp. and Tejon Ranch Company, includes 12,000 residential units and up to 5.1 million square-feet of commercial space on 8,010 acres, 40 miles south of Bakersfield and 80 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

The most alarming aspects of the project are its impacts on air quality, water and wildlife, Rose said. Instead of addressing air quality issues, the county’s environmental impact report shifts much of the mitigation responsibilities onto the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Developers plan to take 3.25 billion gallons of water a year from the Kern River, “stressing California’s already overtaxed water resources,” Rose said, diverting the water from existing residents, farmers, and wildlife.

The project will create massive habitat destruction, paving over more than 4,600 acres used to conserve special-status species, Rose said. “In the midst of a global extinction crisis, we shouldn’t be contributing to more extinction in our own backyard in California,” he added.

Tejon Ranch, established in 1843 through a series of Mexican land grants, is one of the largest private landowners in the state. Controlling more than 270,000 acres in the southern San Joaquin Valley, Tehachapi Mountains, and Antelope Valley, the ranch grows several kinds of nuts, row crops, and wine grapes, and hosts as many as 12,000 head of cattle depending on the season.

The ranch boasts stunning views of rugged mountains overshadowing rolling hills and grasslands. Oaks of almost every kind dot the scenic landscape, as well as conifer forests, Joshua trees, and brilliant wildflower blooms in the spring. A crossroads of several ecoregions, the ranch boasts unique geography and rich biodiversity.

All of this will be irreversibly tarnished should the planned community come to fruition, the environmentalists say.

They claim the county’s studies did not address the severe impacts the project will have on traffic, water supplies, endangered species, plant life, air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, and does not have enough mitigation measures to keep these impacts at a minimum.

Kern County already has some the worst air pollution in the nation. Though ringed on several sides by mountains, they are often barely distinguishable or invisible through a smothering layer of smog and haze. Air pollution is linked to respiratory diseases such as asthma, and can cause developmental harm in children, cardiovascular disease, and premature death.

Kern County, population 882,176, is at the southern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Known for its petroleum extraction and agricultural industries, it is also a hub of energy production, including wind turbines and solar power.

Despite California’s historic drought and water-saving efforts, forcing all county residents, including farmers, to make do with less water, project developers claim there is enough water in the arid region to take 3.25 billion gallons of water a year from the Kern River to support a community of 44,000, the plaintiffs say: nearly 10,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot is enough water to cover one acre one foot deep. It is enough water to supply an average home for a year.

The development is planned for the middle of an agricultural reserve, a biologically sensitive area home to several species of threatened and endangered species, including the San Joaquin kit fox, California condor, bald eagle, burrowing owl, calico monkeyflower and Tejon poppy.

The plaintiffs and many Kern County residents criticized the project when the county circulated the final environmental impact report for public review, but the Board of Supervisors certified the study and approved the project on Dec. 6, 2016.

Interim county counsel Mark Nations said in an email that the environmental report did a thorough job analyzing all impacts of the project.

“We have every confidence that Tejon Ranch Co. will responsibly implement the mitigation measures called for,” he wrote.

The plaintiffs ask the court to set aside the county’s approval, vacate its certification of the environmental impact report, and issue an injunction preventing any work from being done on the project until the county prepares a new study that complies with CEQA.