Judge deals deadly blow to Tejon Ranch master plan

Approvals rescinded on the massive Centennial project; company considering options

Tejon Ranch Company's CEO Greg Bielli and a rendering of the project (Getty, Tejon Ranch Company)
Tejon Ranch Company's CEO Greg Bielli and a rendering of the project (Getty, Tejon Ranch Company)

After decades of controversy and a current legal dispute that has stretched on for years, an L.A. County judge has dealt a potentially fatal blow to one of the largest — and most embattled — projects ever proposed in Southern California.  

In a ruling last Wednesday, the judge ordered that L.A. County “set aside” its approvals and Environmental Impact Report certification of Centennial, a major planned community in northern L.A. County from the Tejon Ranch Company that is nearly the size of Manhattan and aimed to build more than 19,000 homes.  

The order means that the Tejon Ranch Company would have to make amendments to its plans and begin the entitlements process all over before seeking new approvals from the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, a process that would likely take years.  

“The court was 100 percent right,” said J.P. Rose, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the two environmental groups that had brought the case against the project. 

“Personally I am very encouraged by the court’s ruling, because it vindicated the concerns that we have been raising for many years about the problems with the project.” 

In a statement provided to TRD, the Tejon Ranch Company acknowledged the legal defeat but also struck a note of defiance. 

“While we are disappointed in the court’s ruling, we remain committed to Centennial’s ultimate development,” Hugh McMahon, an executive at the firm, said in the statement. 

The company added that it is “considering options to reinstate project approvals” that could include working with the county to address the environmental issues identified as problematic by the courts. It also reiterated its argument that the project, which would add tens of thousands of homes and 10 million square feet of commercial and industrial space, was beneficial to a state suffering from a housing crisis.  

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“More than ever, the state desperately needs the 19,333 housing units Centennial will provide, including the nearly 3,500 affordable units.” 

The judge’s ruling amounts to a more definitive blow for a project that would remake an undeveloped portion of L.A. County but has long been mired by controversy. In April 2021, following a CEQA case brought by The Center for Biological Diversity and the California Native Plant Society, the same judge ruled that the county’s environmental review on the project was flawed. The new ruling builds upon the earlier decision by declaring that the county must throw out its project approvals.

The complaint from the two environmental groups centered around the project’s danger to wildlife, effect on air pollution, the climate disaster, and, especially, wildfire risk. The remote land in northern L.A. County where the development would take place has burned dozens of times, Rose pointed out, and is likely to burn again. 

The ruling is also the latest twist in a develpment saga that has stretched on for decades. The Tejon Ranch Company, which dates back to the 1800s but more recently has been controlled in part by New York-based institutional investors, still ranks as one of the largest private landowners in California and has been pushing various development plans since the 1990s. 

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The company brokered one agreement with environmental groups in 2008; later Centennial, the firm’s signature project, survived years of controversy before ultimately winning final approval from the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in 2019. Just weeks after, however, the two environmental groups filed the current lawsuit, leading to four more years of litigation that, at least for now, have culminated with the judge’s ruling last week rescinding approvals. 

Meanwhile, the company has pursued two additional master planned communities that have been subject to their own controversies. Earlier this month, after releasing a fourth-quarter earnings statement, the company vowed to complete the developments but acknowledged the difficulties it faces. 

“We understand that it can take up to 25 years, or longer, to complete from commencement of construction,” the firm said. “The entitlement process for development of property in California is complex, lengthy (spanning multiple years) and costly.” 

At the time the firm could not provide anticipated completion dates, it added, because of the uncertainty around approvals. 

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