New Disney Facility in Santa Clarita Faces Hurdles

The proposed Disney / ABC Studios at The Ranch

A local environmental group slams the plan for the just-approved 58-acre facility, which will eventually employ 2,800 people but faces months of hearings before breaking ground: "Disney calls themselves environmentally sensitive, but this project doesn’t reflect that."

Four years after filing applications, the Walt Disney Co. has earned regulatory approval to build a massive film and TV production facility near Santa Clarita, but the conglomerate said on Wednesday there are several more bureaucratic hurdles to clear and that there is no timeline for the start of construction.

Also on Wednesday, an environmental group that has opposed the project accused Disney of ignoring many of its concerns, including the removal of 158 oak trees, significant changes to natural waterways and a plan for a large parking lot it said would add to air pollution and global warming.

“Disney calls themselves environmentally sensitive, but this project doesn’t reflect that,” said Lynne Plambeck, president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (or SCOPE).  “They’re required to get other permits, and we’ll continue to look closely at the project. We’re considering our options.”

The proposal is to build what will be called Disney/ABC Studios at The Ranch, which will take up 58 acres of Golden Oak Ranch, an 890-acre piece of land owned by Disney that already hosts about 300 days of production each year.

At full build-out, Disney/ABC Studios at The Ranch will include six soundstage buildings, production offices, talent bungalows, a commissary and more. It will eventually employ 2,854 people and contribute $533 million in annual economic activity throughout Los Angeles County.

Full build-out, though, could take years, even after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the project during a vote on Tuesday. Still ahead are meetings with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

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“While the approval by the County of Los Angeles is a critical milestone, we still have a number of approvals to secure from other agencies,” said Richard Ballering, vp production operations for ABC.

Disney, as well as the county supervisors who voted unanimously to approve the project, said the concerns of SCOPE and other environmental groups have been addressed. The company has already committed to plant 1,600 new oak trees in the area, and argues that 637 acres of Golden Oak Ranch will remain a natural backdrop area. Disney also touted several “green design features” for reducing energy consumption, traffic and storm-water runoff.

And at Tuesday's hearing, Adam Gilbert, Disney's project manager, made the case that the new facility would be an environmental benefit.

"The project will improve and restore (Placerita Creek) to conditions it hasn't seen in 40 years by stabilizing slopes and expanding the native riparian and upland habitat," Gilbert told county officials. "The project will also provide a public, multi-use trail for hiking, mountain-biking and horseback riding."

Plambeck, though, isn't satisfied, and she points to a written request last year from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy asking that Disney agree "to a voluntary project condition that places a conservation easement over the remaining undeveloped portions of the Golden Oak Ranch as a condition precedent to any permit issuance." While Disney agreed to not develop 637 acres, it has not complied with the group's request for an easement because that would turn the property over to a third party.

Plambeck said Wednesday: "They keep saying they won't develop the back area, but if that's the case, why won't they put it into a conservation easement to assure everybody of their intentions?"

Disney points out, though, that there are many environmentalists who disagree with SCOPE. The Sierra Club, for example, has taken a neutral position on the project.

Disney began purchasing Golden Oak Ranch and surrounding property little by little in 1959. Some of the Disney movies that have filmed there include Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, The Santa Clause, Pearl Harbor and two Pirates of the Caribbean films. The property is also used by a variety of TV productions from several companies, including American Idol, Sons of Anarchy and CSI.