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Save Tejon Ranch
The Bakersfield Californian, October 6, 2009

Lawsuit likely after supervisors approve Tejon project
By James Burger, Californian staff writer

The next hurdle for Tejon Mountain Village will be the courtroom.

Attorneys for the Center for Biological Diversity said Monday they will sue to stop the project after Kern County supervisors unanimously blessed the project's construction.

"We're committed to stopping this project," said attorney Adam Keats. "We think we can win in court and that's where we'll be in 30 days."

The Center's two most forceful challenges were to the project's water plan and its potential impact on the California condor.

Supervisors discounted the challenges and hailed the Village as a landmark development that has gone to environmental lengths never before reached in Kern County.

"I don't think there is anything could ever do to satisfy the concerns of the Center," McQuiston said.

Tejon Mountain Village is proposed to be a gated community with two golf courses, 750 hotel rooms, a long string of homes and small housing tracts and resort amenities on 5,082 acres of a 26,417-acre property on Tejon Ranch — as well as a public commercial zone along Interstate 5.

It runs east from I-5 near Frazier Park up a long valley of rolling hills lined with oak trees.

Supervisors hailed the plan's environmental plan and the unique vision of the project.

"The vast lion's share of this ranch has been conserved," said Supervisor Michael Rubio. "This has the highest standards I've seen and I think it is a model for development in the state."

Supervisor Ray Watson said "I'm not aware of any project that requires individual water budgets by household."

Tejon representatives said they wanted to focus on the positive.

"We're just really happy with what the Board of Supervisors have said," said project spokesman Laer Pearce. Center lawyers "have a pretty big mountain, that was laid down in the record today, that they will have to scale."

But opponents of the project argued that no matter how well-planned the project might be, its impacts on the environment remain and will be significant.

"It is probably as environmentally friendly as it possibly could be," said Susan McMahon. But "once you put this in place, it's there for good and you don't know what environmental impacts there will be in 50 years. I'm appalled that this project has been allowed to go this far."

Water was a huge issue of debate at the meeting - and will likely be a legal target.

Adam Lazar of the Center for Biological Diversity said that the water supplies for the project are from unstable, "back up" sources and can't be relied on.

Water for the project would come from the California Water Project and through stored water in the Kern County Water Bank — as well as from reclaimed water from on-site sewer systems.

"The water that we are talking about today is already here. It is in a water bank," said Lorelei Oviatt, special projects chief for the Kern County Planning Department. "Even in the worst seven years of drought there would be enough water to manage their project."

The California condor would also received substantial discussion.

Tejon Ranch is historical range for the species and, attorney Adam Keats argued, the Tejon Mountain Village site is neither a release or feeding site and yet it is the third most intense area for condor GPS hits on record.

Building the project, he said, will hurt the condor.

Oviatt said the presence of the birds is much more substantial in preserves on the western side of Interstate 5.

But she said there is no certain way to prevent any impact to the condor.

"Something could happen that could impede the recovery of the condor," she said.

But perhaps the most emotional challenge to the project came from Native American groups who said their ancestral heritage lives under the Tejon Mountain Village property and that they can't trust company leaders to protect it.

Chumash ceremonial leader Mati Waiya said the project is on some of the most sensitive ecological ground and Tejon has disturbed the village sites and cultural resources of his tribe's history.

"Have honor and respect for the first people," he said.

Oviatt said cultural sites were disturbed in the early 2000s and Tejon has followed appropriate protocol for responding to the discovery of such sites.

She said there is mitigation in the Tejon plan to deal with those impacts.

Robert Gomez of the Tubatulabal tribe, who said he was torn by the project, urged supervisors to approve Tejon Mountain Village only in the hope that native people be given a place of honor on the land that used to be theirs.

"We have no place in Kern County that we can say is Indian land," he said. "There is no place to bury our dead when they come back."

Before supervisors voted, Tejon offered to provide 25,000 square feet of space in its commercial project to provide for a native museum or cultural site.

Pierce argued that the official record of the project is enough to stand up to any legal challenges that may come.

"We made the case for water. We made the case for the condor. We made the case for cultural artifacts," he said.

Supervisors agreed.

The question that remains to be answered is if a judge will agree as well.

Copyright 2009 The Bakersfield Californian

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton