July 27, 2009

Wildflower reserve concerned about proposed racetrack

Each year, thousands of people behold the state flower at the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. A proposed motor sports park nearby has environmentalists, visitors, residents and parks officials nervous.

During peak seasons, the desert landscape beyond Lancaster turns into a lush welcome mat. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times / April 1, 2009)

By Ann M. Simmons
Los Angeles Times

During peak seasons, the hardened landscape in the desert beyond Lancaster turns into a golden welcome mat for the thousands who come to see the poppy fields.

It's a dizzying spectacle that the state estimates draws upward of 100,000 visitors a year to the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. There's a trail, an interpretive center and not much else -- except the sensory experience of viewing the state flower in full bloom.

But the neighborhood could be changing.

An Orange County man who owns 320 acres of Mojave Desert land next to the poppy fields wants to carve out a 3.6-mile course for racing, driving and testing cars. The proposed Fairmont Butte Motorsports Park would be used primarily for events sponsored by car clubs and racing organizations.

But the fact that the track would be only a mile from the state-protected reserve has alarmed environmentalists, residents, visitors and state parks officials, who fear the loss of serenity and vast stretches of land where wildflowers frequently grow.

"It's a terribly inappropriate business for that area," said Milt Stark, president of the Poppy Reserve/Mojave Desert Interpretive Assn., a volunteer group that gives tours and talks at the wildflower sanctuary.

"Visitors who come to see the poppies come out there to have peace and quiet."

Tom Malloy sees it differently. For the last seven years he has been trying to win approval to develop a motor sports park on his land, which is near the tiny community of Fairmont. The land is vacant, used primarily by trespassers who are looking for a place to race motorcycles or shoot guns.

"I feel the racetrack, run the way I want it run, would be an asset to the area," said Malloy, who owns a Los Angeles-based shoring equipment firm.

The racetrack would operate only during the daytime, Malloy said, and there would be no grandstand or large seating area, allowing for only a few spectators. He doesn't anticipate a throng of racing enthusiasts pouring into the area.

But according to a draft environmental impact report filed with Los Angeles County earlier this month, the park could expose nearby residents to dust during construction and excessive noise once it is up and running. It could also adversely affect the area's wildlife, which includes lizards, badgers and burrowing owls.

Most upsetting for flora and fauna lovers, the proposed racetrack would result in the loss of almost 140 acres within the project site, where seasonal wildflowers such as poppies, California buckwheat scrub and purple needle grass typically grow.

Though mitigation measures have been suggested to help reduce the dust, muffle the noise and decrease the risk of harm to wildlife, "no feasible measures exist" to prevent to loss of the wildflower fields, according to the impact report. The effects would be "significant and unavoidable."

Kathy Weatherman, a state parks superintendent in the Tehachapi area, said that in 2005 her agency sent a notice to the county's planning department outlining concerns about the proximity of the proposed track to the 1,800-acre reserve.

The southern portion of the project site falls within the boundaries of a county-designated "significant ecological area," a designation meant to protect the habitat of rare, endangered or threatened plants or animals.

Malloy contends that his venture will actually help the area. If given the go-ahead, he said, he would clean up the spent bullet casings that now litter much of the site, along with the trash and used household items that have been dumped there.

Trespassing motorcycle enthusiasts, whose bootleg racing sessions have transformed vegetation-ripe soil into bare dirt, would have to "go someplace else," he said.

Stark and others said the racetrack probably would attract more bikers and "people who are interested in that kind of thing."

Dean Webb, a local environmental activist and an Antelope Valley resident since 1960, said people driving on California 138 will be drawn to the track, bringing traffic and a stream of off-roaders.

"I hate to put it this way, but it would be, 'There goes the neighborhood,' " Stark said.

Not only the neighborhood, but the entire ambience of the community, said Mike Powell, who volunteers at the reserve. He worries that if Malloy gets approval, other enterprises will ask to set up shop nearby.

"That project represents the start of a significant threat to the kind of lifestyle and environment that many people moved out here for," Powell said.

The tranquillity and stark landscape are what compelled Northridge resident Linda Wang to visit the poppy reserve one recent season. She couldn't envision having a motor sports park nearby.

"I think it would be a little weird," she said.