Major environmental and planning gains were achieved though last minute changes weakened the Significant Ecological Areas.

In 2014, the Board of Supervisors “fast tracked” the portion of the county-wide General Plan Update that has the most natural open space – the Antelope Valley Area Plan. Northern LA County (which also contains the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale) has Joshua woodlands, desert scrub, native grasslands, and mountainous chaparral, along with renowned wildflower fields that draw visitors from afar. EHL participated in the process, meeting with staff, submitting comments, and offering testimony.

The staff proposal, developed over years of community input, was called “Town and County.” It contained major, science-based expansions of Significant Ecological Areas, in which proposed development gets heightened scrutiny for site design and mitigation and in which conservation efforts are focused. Town and Country would reduce densities within SEAs and direct growth into towns, reversing a pattern of highly destructive large lot subdivision.

However, the District Supervisor appointed a “Blue Ribbon Committee” dominated by business and real estate interests. The Committee successfully injected three “Economic Opportunity Areas,” or EOAs, into the plan. One was the Centennial “new town” site which EHL does not oppose, as it is part of the Tejon Ranch Agreement between environmental groups (including EHL) and the Tejon Ranch Company that permanently preserves 90% of that 270,000-acre property. The other two EOAs were initially conceived as employment centers along transportation corridors, but their ultimately vast scale over tens of thousands of acres of rural and habitat land belies that otherwise reasonable goal.

Late in the hearing process, the Planning Commission rolled back SEA boundaries where the over-scaled EOAs overlapped, reducing the proposed expansions by 11,600 acres. Further, after public hearings were closed, the Board of Supervisors created a last minute exemption that would allow many subdivisions to escape the protections that come with the SEA designation. Affecting 200,000 acres, this will increase the risk of fragmenting the largest and often most ecologically valuable parcels.

Nevertheless, much was accomplished. The great majority of the proposed SEA expansions survived. The old General Plan’s estate lot densities over vast areas of habitat and farmland were generally converted to lower densities that reflect fire hazard, wildlife values, and remote location. While EHL had recommended even lower rural densities, the plan nevertheless represents a paradigm shift toward town-centered as opposed to dispersed development. This will also have greenhouse gas and climate benefits. Much credit goes to the Department of Regional Planning, which led the effort and which takes its name seriously.

The Board of Supervisors certified the Environmental Impact Report and took actions as described above on November 12, 1014. It is anticipated that final wording will be brought back in the Spring of 2015 for final adoption.

Much work remains to be done, including adopting the balance of the county-wide General Plan Update, community-level planning for towns and EOAs, and updating the old ordinance that implements SEA protections. It will also be very important to put in place planning mechanisms and funding sources that turn the SEAs from lines on a map into permanent conservation. EHL will continue to engage on these fronts.