Logo

No announcement available or all announcement expired.

End of the Trail Means Beginning of Changes

| Canyon Country Magazine | March 27, 2015

When the City of Santa Clarita purchased a house in Sand Canyon this month, some residents saw it as a means of blazing new trails, while others viewed it as the end of the trail – literally.

The property on the southwest corner of Sand Canyon and Lost Canyon Road is situated in a prime spot for planned developmental changes in the area. A roundabout is slated for the four-way stop there, which is the edge of the Vista Canyon project, a development set to break ground this year. It is also a key parcel to join the Sand Canyon Master Trail with other City-owned space, likely to connect that community with other parts of the City.

“We’re very excited about it. It’s definitely going to enhance the multi-use trail plan and provide safer routes to school,” said Barbara Blankenship, the City of Santa Clarita’s acquisition specialist. “And it’ll be part of the intersection improvements there.”

The transaction came just weeks after a meeting was held by the Sand Canyon Community Board of Directors, which brought City officials and residents together to get the 20-year-old trails project back on the City’s radar.

“We’ve never abandoned these projects … it’s just timing,” said Blankenship. “So when the opportunity came up and someone put the house up for sale … we are vigilant about trying to get all this connectivity.”

The serendipitous timing joining demand with opportunity was noticed by more than one resident.

photo 2“When the house came on the market, several canyon folks whispered in my ear that SCHOA (Sand Canyon Homeowners Association) should buy it,” said Ruthann Levison, SCHOA board member. “Of course, SCHOA could not do that. So, I suggested to both (Council Members) Bob Kellar and Laurene Weste that the corner would make a great trailhead to connect our Sand Canyon Trail to the Open Space in Placerita Canyon, and that would benefit the entire eastern portion of our City. I also suggested to them that the planned roundabout for that corner would need more room – and then I prayed. The City & God both listened. The trails meeting brought the Sand Canyon Trail back on the radar screen, so it certainly didn’t hurt. End result: ‘home run!’”

Eventual construction on the newly purchased property will serve as part of the roundabout, also the Sand Canyon Trail plan, and the “overall beautification of that corner,” said Blankenship. “It’s the gateway into Sand Canyon. And having the two schools there, it definitely would benefit the traffic patterns.”

According to Blankenship, the design process has not been implemented yet; however, it is clear that, because the City does not typically have a use for a single family home, especially a structure built in the 1950s, big changes are ahead.

“There are some rough roundabout concept ideas,” said Blankenship. “We own six and a half acres on the north side across from the property. We’re just glad we own another property that includes the trail, includes the roundabout and improves traffic patterns, also providing safe rides to school.”

Canyon Country Merchants Association

| Articles, Canyon Country Magazine | April 12, 2013

By Andrew Thompson

Diane Southwell has been involved with Canyon Country for more than half a century.

“In the early 1960s…the Mint Canyon Chamber of Commerce telephone rang in [our] home,” she says. “That tells you how small of a community we were; we didn’t have…an answering service, or anything.”

In those early days, Southwell says, Canyon Country was a special place. It was an area full of future promise – it formed the foundation of what would eventually become Santa Clarita – and yet, it also managed to stay true to its pioneer roots.

“We had frontier days,” Southwell says, recalling the time when many Canyon Country residents owned horses and the community featured themed events. “It was wonderful family entertainment…now we don’t have room for things like that, but we still have the same family…feelings, here.”

Canyon Country may have maintained its family feel, but the fact is that the landscape of the Valley has drastically changed. Canyon Country has joined with several other communities to become the single, incorporated City of Santa Clarita. The focus of developers has largely shifted to the west side, with newer residences and vast commercial centers having sprung up in areas like Valencia. The Canyon Country Chamber of Commerce has merged to become part of the broader Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce and, ultimately, some residents have been forced to face a hard truth: many of their fellow Santa Clarita residents believe that, while other parts of the Valley are now flourishing, Canyon Country had been left in their dust.

“We kind of got lazy about it, I guess,” Southwell admits, referring to the growth of Canyon Country, relative to that on the Valley’s west side.

But many still feel like the current perception of Canyon Country (lovingly referred to as the “stepchild” of the Valley by some who live there) is somewhat unfair.Southwell contends, Canyon Country has much to offer.

“Canyon Country is a wonderful place,” says Southwell, “and we need to be doing more about promoting all our businesses and all our events, and our activities, and creating more activities.”

Canyon Country Merchants Association: L-R Kim Kurowski, Diane Southwell, Alan Ferdman, RJ Kelly, George Thomas, Doug Sutton, Patty Kelly

A little more than a year ago, Canyon Country residents and business owners George Thomas and R.J. Kelly were thinking much the same.

Thomas, the owner of a restaurant called Route 66 Classic Grill that regularly holds bike nights, classic car shows, and other community events, had decided to investigate what needed to be done to put more of an emphasis on events in Canyon Country. When he spoke with a City official, the advice he received was clear: Thomas would need to get people organized if he wanted a better chance of winning the City’s ear.

Meanwhile, R.J. Kelly of Int’l Tax Network – Thomas’s friend and occasional business associate – was also becoming aware of the importance of organizing to promote the interests of some of his fellow merchants.

“We felt that…there wasn’t a lot of communication between the City, the Chamber, and other organizations regarding Canyon Country, and Canyon Country is one of the largest suburbs of the city,” Kelly says. “And…we kind of felt like we were getting slighted over on this side of town, and we wanted more involvement.”

One day, while discussing their shared interest in helping the Canyon Country business climate and community as a whole, the two men decided that it was time for something to be done.

“[We] sat down one day and put our heads together and said, ‘Yeah, we – we need to move on this,’” Kelly recalls. “We agreed that we just need to band together as business owners, or managers, and…try to get some support from the City and organize amongst ourselves to improve the business climate in Canyon Country.”

They decided to act. The result was the formation of the group that would come to be known as the Canyon Country Merchants Association.

“We just kind of put out the word, and ended up with about 10 merchants that all got together,” Kelly says.

One of the merchants they first approached with their idea was Doug Sutton, a 15-year resident who owns Valley Publications, another Canyon Country business.

“I think, for me, it rang a bell,” Sutton says, recounting the surprise he experienced when he first moved to the area and discovered both the negative perception of Canyon Country and the lack of travel to the area by many other Santa Clarita residents.

Sutton says he has friends from Valencia who claim they can’t even remember the last time they traveled to the eastern part of the Valley. “They think it’s been two or three years since they’ve been to Canyon Country,” he says.

Members and guests at a recent CCMA meeting

That’s a trend, some members of the Merchants Association believe, which must be changed. “We wanna get some folks to come over here…” Sutton says. “And we can show – ‘Hey,’ you know, ‘we’re a nice community, we’re a family community, we’ve got lots of good businesses – come check us out once in a while.”

Since coming on board with the Association, Sutton has gone on to become its Chairman. As a board member of the Chamber of Commerce, Sutton also serves as one of the representatives of the Chamber, under whose umbrella the Canyon Country Merchants Association operates.

But the Merchants Association’s meetings include several other prominent Canyon Country figures as well. Alan Ferdman, another longtime resident who also serves as the chair of the Canyon Country Advisory Committee and has recently announced that he will be running for the City Council, is one of the meetings’ regulars.

“It really is true…the Valley is really not two sides of the Valley, it’s really one Valley,” Ferdman says. “It’s a really good thing to see if we can get synergy across the Valley in…making everything work,” he adds. “And that’s another goal of the Merchants Association.”

A recent meeting of CCMA

Kimberly Kurowski, a Saugus resident, has found a benefit to working with the Association to forward a cause of her own. “I believe in getting everybody to shop local,” she explains, “and Canyon Country is part of our ‘local,’ so I want to do what I can to help.”

Lupe Hafner of Doctors Express, Santa Clarita – a medical clinic also located on Soledad that opened only eight months ago – has attended just three meetings, but says she certainly likes what she’s seen so far. “I think you need to go to these meetings so that you can get to meet people and see – you know, how you can work together, and help each other,” Hafner says, noting that she has made a variety of helpful connections by doing so herself.

There are other regular Association attendees – including that original Mint Canyon Chamber of Commerce associate and 54-year resident Diane Southwell. But, perhaps just as noteworthy as the merchants and other members, have been some of the Merchant Association’s recent guests. Organizing has, in fact, gotten the City’s ear. Recently, representatives of the government of Santa Clarita have attended Merchants Association meetings regularly to coordinate with the committee, and have expressed their desire to work with the Association in the creation, execution, and publicizing of Canyon Country events.

Other attendees have included representatives of institutions such as College of the Canyons, as well as the Sheriff’s and Fire Departments. Ed Bernstein, a director with the Old Town Newhall Association and the owner of the membership discount card 25Score, has also attended and expressed his interest in working with the Association to promote local merchants. And one of the most important regulars is another representative of the very organization under which the Association currently works: Santa Clarita Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Terri Crain.

“Terri Crain has really been a valuable asset,” Sutton says. “She doesn’t live in this part of town, but she recognized the need for what we’re trying to accomplish, and she bought into it, and she’s really been a big help.”

(Taste of Canyon Country, one of the important upcoming events Association members are organizing, is actually one of the official events of the Chamber of Commerce.)

Yet, for all the commitment of City officials, organization presidents, and more, most of the Association agrees that an absolutely essential key to the future of the Association will be the growth of the membership itself.

“All are welcome,” Sutton says. “We would love to have anybody – even if you’re not a business.”

Sutton points to Southwell as someone who is not a merchant, but still is committed to helping the Association work toward its goals. And one needs not even be from Canyon Country to attend.

“Anyone…even outside of Canyon Country who is interested in helping us promote Canyon Country is welcome to be on the committee,” Kurowski states.

“We welcome the merchants to give us a phone call,” Kelly says, “…to come and spend an hour with us, and bring some problems to solve, and bring some questions to ask, and possibly bring some solutions.”

The Canyon Country Merchants Association meets at 10:00 a.m. on the second Thursday of every month at the Sulphur Springs School District Office, located at 27000 Weyerhauser Way, off Via Princessa. For more information, contact Doug Sutton at doug@scfree.net or the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce at 661-702-6977 or info@scvchamber.com.

Vista Canyon

| Articles, Canyon Country Magazine | February 15, 2013

I. The Man

“Yeah, I’m a big fan of Lincoln,” admits James S. Backer, and the evidence seems to support his claim.  A sketch of the 16th President greets guests in his office. A quote from the man welcomes visitors to the website of his company. If you ask him, both Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field “really captured the essence” of their characters in the recent film – and with his history degree from Stanford, he should probably know.

But it’s not through his knowledge of history that Backer is making his mark. Instead, James Backer – Jim, as he’s called by those who know him – is being recognized for the way that he’s shaping his own community today.  After all, Backer is one of those rare individuals who can honestly say he’s helped build a city – from the ground up.

Backer is the founder and president of JSB Development, a real estate development company headquartered in Valencia. Among his impressive contributions to Santa Clarita is his involvement in the development of Valencia Town Center, Valencia Commerce Center, Centre Pointe Business Park, River Court, and Tourney Place – to name a few.

Backer has been shaping the Santa Clarita community for more than 28 years, but this city hasn’t always been his home.  Though a native Californian by birth, Backer spent much of his early life in the Midwest; Omaha, Nebraska, was his childhood home.

“I had a lot of interest in art when I was growing up,” Backer says, reflecting on how his childhood experiences may have led him toward his current career. His drawing skill has come in handy, he says, considering the importance of design in his field. “We essentially try to buy dirt and create something that people want to buy or lease from it,” he jokes.

Backer has always enjoyed working with people, he says. From an early age, he tended toward positions that involved leadership or problem solving, including heading his high school newspaper and interning at the Senate while in college. But it wasn’t until late in his Stanford career that a fateful meeting with a university trustee, who happened to be the chief executive officer of the Newhall Land and Farming Company, placed Backer on the path toward a career in real estate development.

“We got to talking, and about a month later I was flying down here (to Southern California) after I graduated,” Backer says. When his parents asked him what he expected out of his journey, Backer prophesied correctly. “I think he’s gonna offer me a job,” he told them, “and I think I’m gonna take it.”

That job landed him in Santa Clarita in 1984, and he’s been a part of the community in one way or another ever since. During the course of his tenure at Newhall Land, Backer learned as much as he could about his industry as he helped the company gradually shape Valencia. There were other stops for Backer along the way, including extensive travels both domestically and abroad, an MBA program at UCLA, a two-year stay with another L.A.-based company, and a job overseeing a large project in Sacramento – but it all led up to one thing: the founding of his own company in 2000.

For the last 13 years, JSB Development has played a major part in bringing project after project to fruition, gradually forming the modern landscape of the Santa Clarita Valley.  But Backer’s building of the community includes more than simply putting together brick and mortar. Backer has also been actively involved with a number of non-profits, including the SCV Education Foundation and the Foundation for Children’s Dental Health.

Whatever work he does in his career or for his community, Backer admits his Christian faith and love of family are what truly drive him. And, although his career and nonprofit work would seem to make him a busy man, Backer is especially devoted to spending time with his three kids.

“I get the pleasure of, you know, going on campouts with my son and coaching my son in baseball, and…trying to make sure (my daughter) gets to ride a horse once in a while,” Backer says with a laugh.  “That’s the…the treat of life.”

And in Backer’s eyes, Santa Clarita is a rather unique place to raise a family. “I think people (in Santa Clarita) have a lot of focus on their kids, and…I think family is important out here,” he says.  “It’s a pretty small community,” he adds, even going so far as to say that in some ways, the city has an almost-Midwestern feel.

But Santa Clarita, Backer is sure to point out, is also special for its California history. “This area has really participated in just about every California boom there’s been…gold, oil, railroads, the movies, freeways…” Backer says. “So, it’s got a very rich history, I think.”

And that’s where, for both Backer and the city, the past meets the present. The past meets the present because Backer always considers the history of the places in which his company builds.

“Real estate has nothing if not history,” Backer says, commenting on the appropriateness of his original degree. “Nothing. Real estate is all history.”

It’s a point that is especially relevant, considering Backer’s plans to begin construction at one of the most historic locations in the Santa Clarita Valley.

II. The Plan – Canyon Country

In 1860, Thomas Mitchell became the first permanent white settler in Santa Clarita when he decided to call a ranch in Soledad Canyon his home. Today, standing by what’s known as the Vista Canyon site – a vast expanse of dust and ragged bushes, rabbits and the occasional roadrunner darting by – you can almost imagine Thomas and his wife, Martha, forging their way on the same unforgiving desert land. That is, if you can ignore the sound of the cars whizzing by on Highway 14 behind you.

You can also imagine, if you try hard enough, how the land will look as the massively ambitious Vista Canyon community; a development complete with homes, stores, hotels, a town center, a corporate campus, four miles of trails, a 10-acre park, a new Metrolink station, and a community garden – all of which are included in the JSB Development design.

It’s a plan that JSB Development has been working on for quite some time, but seeing that it becomes a reality has not always been simple. The process of acquiring the land took many years, Backer says – and even when the entire property had finally been purchased in 2006, the company’s plans for it were not yet fully cemented. In fact, Backer admits, his company’s original intentions for the land were not nearly as grand.

“Our initial plan for Vista Canyon was…just homes,” Backer says. “Homes and maybe a little park and some trails, and that was it.”

But when they presented their plans to the local residents, recalls Backer, he and his colleagues realized that Canyon Country residents were ready for something more.

“They said, ‘You know, what we really don’t have over here is, we just don’t have a center and we don’t have a place to eat and we’d like some more restaurants and we’d like a few shops closer to us,’” Backer explains. “They just said, ‘Hey, it’d just be nice if you kind of looked, you know, a little more broadly.’”

They did, and over time, the current Vista Canyon plan was born. But Backer says that the involvement of the community in the design of the development didn’t end there.

“There are probably – I don’t know – half a dozen to a dozen things that I can directly point to you in this plan that came directly from a meeting with the communities,” Backer says.  “And we had almost 80 community meetings, in one form or another…(and) all of them involved Vista Canyon and what it was going to be and what it could become.”

One of the important suggestions of the community, explains Backer, had to do with the development’s overall look and feel. “They kept saying, in Canyon Country, ‘We want this to reflect our community,’” Backer recalls. And that meant something clear: a more rural design that honored the area’s pioneer history, rather than the Mediterranean style used in other developments, such as Valencia Town Center.

Other community suggestions led to the development of a road pattern that both directs commuter through traffic away from the rural Sand Canyon Road and leaves the adjacent Santa Clara River open to view. In fact, traffic and transportation considerations were one of the major issues JSB Development faced. That’s partly why the company, at the request of the City, agreed to take advantage of the development’s proximity to the Metrolink tracks by relocating the Via Princessa station to the development.

“A lot of what, you know, downtown L.A. and parts of L.A. are trying to do, they’re trying to create these – these centers around Metrolink stations,” Backer says. “Well, we get to create it from the ground up.”

But to paint the project as all about urban planning would be to ignore the obvious history of the site – something Backer would never do. That’s why he emphasizes the importance of measures such as keeping the graveyard overlooking the land, in which its early tenants rest, intact.  Backer also hopes the community will make use of the planned River Education Center.

“(The Center is) kind of another way to, again, draw upon the history of the area and feature that,” Backer explains, “but give the community something that they can use forever, which is a meeting center, a meeting area.”

It’s just one of the many aspects of the plan that the company is hoping will both honor the past and be of additional use to the development’s future population. The project could be “shovel ready” as soon as this spring, Backer says, when it wraps up the few administrative and other tasks that remain uncompleted. And with the economic climate looking the way it does today, Backer believes that the time is right – that local residents are ready for Vista Canyon to arrive.

But the decision about when construction will begin may not be in the company’s hands at all.

III. The Potential Delay

“We were approved in May of 2011 by the City; we were sued in June of 2011,” Backer says.

The lawsuit he’s referring to was brought forth, in part, by both S.C.O.P.E., the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, and Friends of the Santa Clara River.  Backer says that Lynne Plambeck, a self-described community activist who currently sits on the Newhall County Water District Board, was behind both organizations’ decisions to sue.

According to Backer, the lawsuit was enabled by CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, which he says he believes is in need of reform.  CEQA, Backer claims, has enabled S.C.O.P.E. to sue and delay many of what he believed were desirable Santa Clarita projects, allowing the organization to become what he calls “a de facto impediment to economic growth and quality development in Santa Clarita.”  This, he says, has “an unfortunate and costly outcome for the community with no clear or apparent offsetting benefits.”

Among the complaints against the Vista Canyon plan are allegations that the development of the site would adversely affect the Santa Clara River.  The Vista Canyon development would, for example, reduce the width of the floodplain – a claim that Backer admits is true, but says he believes is overblown, arguing that the floodplain would still be 800 feet across, almost twice the average width of the river throughout the eastern part of the Santa Clarita Valley. Meanwhile, Backer contends that JSB Development has taken a variety of measures to ensure it handles Vista Canyon’s land and resources responsibly, including the planned development of the project’s own water reclamation plant. This would be the first project-associated water reclamation plant in the city, which would essentially make the development water-neutral, Backer claims. But one of the complaints against the development actually alleges that the plant itself could produce adverse effects, such as adding chloride to the Santa Clara River, contributing to a problem for which the city has already been fined.

Backer also notes that the company has taken steps to address a multitude of other environmental concerns, including adjusting plans to accommodate local animal populations, as well as implementing measures to mitigate the impacts of traffic and energy consumption. “We have done everything within our power to minimize the footprint and the impact on the community by this development,” Backer stresses. “At the same time, we can’t apologize for the fact that there will be homes there, there will be businesses, they will use electricity, cars will drive there, they won’t all be electric…there are tradeoffs.  It’s not a perfect world.”

Among those tradeoffs, Backer suggests, are a variety of other benefits for the area – including a decrease in commutes, an increase in available jobs (with an emphasis on corporate and professional jobs for the east side), and an overall boost to the local economy – all of which, he says, have the potential to actually improve the environment or the quality of life in the community as a whole.

But not everyone agrees.  The suit, Backer says, revolves largely around a wide variety of issues regarding the thoroughness of the city’s EIR, alleging that it didn’t do enough to analyze the impacts of the development in the first place. If the court rules against Vista Canyon, the city would likely have to complete additional studies and consider adjustments – although Backer says the company would likely appeal.

“If they win, yeah – we’re not gonna go away. We’re gonna keep at it,” Backer says. But that would likely result in delays in the progress that could otherwise be made at the Vista Canyon site. The initial decision is expected some time in the middle of the year.

IV. Waiting

Typically, Backer says, he tries not to let things like the lawsuit upset him – he’s the kind of person who keeps things in perspective, not fretting over that which he is unable to control.  “What I can do is spend my time on things that I think are important,” he notes.

But in the case of Vista Canyon, Backer’s frustration is difficult to hide. “Vista Canyon is an amazing project that was created with tremendous community input, with tremendous thought from my team, my consultants, my designers, and with tremendous commitment from us to make it the best project that we could,” Backer says.  “And…to just go sue it, is to me, to just – you know – just throw it down the drain, and not to respect…what’s gone through.”

Ultimately, it will be up to the courts to decide whether or not the claims of Backer’s opponents are valid, and whether the company needs to take additional measures to ensure compliance with environmental regulations.

But, in Backer’s view, the stakes could hardly be higher. “I think a community is either living or dying – one of the two,” he says.  “There’s no static.  It either grows, it improves, or it dies…people leave, people move away, people don’t wanna invest there, they don’t wanna be there.  So…I’m puttin’ my choice with the living crowd.”

Later, Backer simply adds, “(We’ll) do the best we can. That’s all we can do.”

For more information on Backer, JSB Development, or the company’s plans for Vista Canyon, visit www.jsbdev.com or www.vistacanyon.com.

Doug’s Rant – Video Edition

  • WatchDoug's Rant June 16, 2017
  • WatchDoug's Rant May 26