20,000 Houses Will Be Built Outside LA. Dangerous Urban Sprawl Or Answer To The Housing Crisis?

Tejon Ranch, 270,000 acres of sprawling private land 70 miles north of L.A., is seen in a stock photo. L.A. County Supervisors on Tuesday approved building 20,000 houses on a portion of the ranch toward the top of the Grapevine. (Photo by Ian Lee/Flickr Creative Commons)

By Caleigh Wells and Sharon McNary

Too many people chasing too few homes are contributing to the region's housing crisis. So why not just build a bunch more homes? On Tuesday, a development of almost 20,000 new units was given the green light by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

The houses are part of the Centennial Project, a massive planned community on a small part of Tejon Ranch, 70 miles north of L.A. in the grasslands near Route 5 and the L.A.-Kern County line.

The project has been in the works for decades but has been challenged by opponents from the start. At the meeting on Tuesday, more than a hundred members of the public showed up, wearing stickers and holding signs. Each one of them got a chance to address the supervisors before the board made its final decision.

Charles Brown was one of the first to question the supervisors.

"Are you seriously considering a development on substantial wildlife acreage, in the middle of a mountain range with a substantial drive from any job centers, in an area with no local water supply in the midst of expectations of water shortages across the western US, in an historic burn area in the new abnormal of multiple catastrophic wildfires across the rural urban interface?" he asked.

"What could you possibly be thinking?"

SOME BACKGROUND

The Centennial Project is a small part of Tejon Ranch, 270,000 acres of private land, near the top of the Grapevine, that vital passage between Southern California and the Central Valley.

It's owned by the Tejon Ranch Company, founded in 1936, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. The company says it is the largest contiguous piece of private land in California.

In 2008, the owners agreed to conserve 90 percent of the property — about 240,000 acres — while opening up the other 10 percent to development.

That agreement was approved by The Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society and Audubon California, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Endangered Habitats League, and the Planning and Conservation League.

But other environmental groups still have concerns over the amount of greenhouse gases the development would produce, plus the loss of native plants and habitat for species like the California Condor.

WHAT'S BEING PROPOSED

The Centennial Project will be a large-scale residential and mixed-use community. Some 19,300 homes for 57,000 residents and 8.4 million square feet of commercial space would be built out over the next 30 years.

The company proposal offers a mix of housing affordability levels, nine walkable "villages," "smart transportation," solar ready homes, bicycle paths and a promised balance of jobs and housing.

Every home would be within a quarter-mile of a park, and most homes are within a half-mile of a village center or town core. This trail system for walking and biking is supposed to encourage healthy living. So is the land set aside for community gardens.

HOW MUCH WOULD THEY COST?

The Board of Supervisors called for 18 percent of the housing units to be affordable condos or rental apartments. The lower cost would be subsidized by buyers of other units, who would pay an increased cost of between $25,000 and $50,000 to offset any below-cost units. It's possible the county could also contribute towards the subsidy.

The idea for the rest of the community is to be a place where the middle-class, the firefighters, police officers and teachers could afford to live. The developers' definition of those mid-priced units is in the high $400,000 price range.

HOW DOES THIS PROJECT EASE LA'S HOUSING DEMAND?

Southern California Association of Governments, which sets housing and other goals under state guidelines, says the unincorporated part of the county needs 30,000 new housing units.

Centennial would add 950 per year for the next 20 years. Most are single family homes, but 250 of them are condos or apartments.

WHAT ABOUT THE FIRE RISK?

That was one of the biggest qualms county residents had at the meeting.

Nick Jensen says the weather there portends future wildfires.

"As a graduate student I spent hundreds of days on Tejon Ranch, and this is a very dry and windy location. I can attest to that," he said. "These are the exact conditions that have precipitated disasters elsewhere. You need to take that into your conscience."

The Centennial development sits in medium, high and very high hazard zones as designated by the L.A. County Fire Department. The specific plan says they will build three fire stations and rely on brush clearance and defensible space setbacks to protect homes from fire.

But as recent wildfires have shown, it can take a lot more than three stations to put out a fire. And most of the other county stations will be more than an hour-and-a-half drive from Centennial.

Those recent wildfires sparked additional concern in county residents like Vicki Kirschenbaum of Burbank.

"There was once a town called Paradise... This is what climate change looks like in the high-risk fire areas of California. Tejon Ranch is such a place," she said. "Imagine: soaring summer temperatures, months of drought, one camp fire somebody neglected to extinguish, [and] 57,000 people desperately trying to evacuate with one major road out."

Others called Centennial "a lovely vision [that] could all go up in smoke," and "a recipe for scorched homes."

County residents convinced Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who as the sole dissenter cited fire as one of her major concerns with building the city.

"The threat from fire in this area is still very high," she said. "Fire requires defense... and that is county resources. And as you know we don't just have one fire at a time anymore."

WHAT OTHER CRITICISMS ARE THERE?

One of the biggest ones is environmental. Some are worried about furthering climate change with added cars on the freeway, but they also don't like disrupting the undeveloped grassland.

Photographer Richard Dickey has travelled there for work, and he opposed the project for fear of disrupting the landscape: "Once you allow the bulldozers to rip up this landscape, you will be destroying a unique California legacy that is irreplaceable."

County residents also weren't convinced that people living in Centennial wouldn't commute into L.A., so they were worried about added traffic on the 5.

That's why several of them called this plan of furthering urban sprawl the wrong vision for the future of Los Angeles.

Developers plan to make jobs available in Centennial to about half of the working population who live there. The other half, they said, could commute a half hour to Bakersfield, Santa Clarita or the Antelope Valley.

By the time the public comments stopped, Kuehl still had concerns.

"There's been a concentration on what jobs will stay in Centennial, and I think it's a bit of pie in the sky that people who live there are going to work there," she said.

But the housing crisis argument won in the end, with the supervisors voting 4-1 to approve the project. They cited an unprecedented percentage of affordable housing as a positive step to solving the housing crisis.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger was the leading voice in favor of approval, and she said with California's high homeless population and low home ownership, the bottom line is the county needs more houses on the market.

"I believe we have an obligation to improve conditions for our constituents, and to help alleviate the housing crisis," she said. "This brings us closer to achieving this goal."


Hey, thanks. You read the entire story. And we love you for that. Here at LAist, our goal is to cover the stories that matter to you, not advertisers. We don't have paywalls, but we do have payments (aka bills). So if you love independent, local journalism, join us. Let's make the world a better place, together. Donate now.