Legal Backdrop for Developers May Be Edging Toward High Noon...
By Edward Humes
Lawyers for the Center for Biological Diversity are advancing a new legal theory to fight global warming. At stake is the future of a one-of-a-kind ecosystem. Between the asphalt sprawl of the Los Angeles Basin and the fertile flatlands of the Central Valley lies a vast blank spot on the map about twelve times the size of Manhattan—a wild place unlike any other in California: Tejon Ranch. Here the valley, the Mojave, the Sierra Nevada, and the South Coast all meet, providing habitat for more than 80 rare and endangered species to roam, roost, and raise their young, including the nearly extinct California condor. Studded with ancient, windswept oak groves, twisted Joshua trees, native wildflower fields, and thick stands of piñon pines, Tejon is an unspoiled part of a much larger region that Conservation International has recognized as one of the most biodiverse in the world. Tejon also happens to be private property—the largest single block in the state, in fact. And its owner, the Tejon Ranch Co., now wants to build on it what is said to be the single largest master-planned development in California history. The company is calling the project Centennial, which it envisions as a city of up to 70,000 people that would include industrial space, multiple shopping centers, schools, and medical facilities. A separate project on the land includes plans for a resort and luxury-home complex near the condors' foraging and historic nesting grounds. From the developers' point of view, it's a plum just waiting to be plucked—more than a quarter million contiguous acres a mere 70 miles from downtown Los Angeles. A straight shot up the I-5, it would be the ultimate bedroom community, reportedly worth as much as half a trillion dollars when all is said and done. ("Playing SimCity for Real" is how the New York Times characterized this one-of-a-kind plan for a one-of-a-kind landscape.) And in the hope of appeasing conservationists, the company has also proposed setting aside 100,000 of the ranch's 270,000 acres as a permanent nature preserve. Copious additional acreage would be designated as open space. But the plan has hardly satisfied conservation groups, and chief among them is the Center for Biological Diversity, a battle-seasoned nonprofit organization staffed by a devoted 40-person coterie of lawyers, biologists, wildlife experts, and activists that no big developer can afford to take lightly. The center's track record speaks for itself: In its 18-year history it has won more than 90 percent of the hundred or so lawsuits it has filed under the Endangered Species Act, leading to the protection of 349 endangered species and 70 million acres of habitat. It has prevailed against adversaries as diverse as local city councils, California's largest developers, and the Bush administration.
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