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Alex Horvath / The Californian

An aerial view of Tejon Ranch land that is part of the largest conservation and land use agreement in California history. The agreement would provide permanent protection of 240,000 acres of the historic ranch, approximately 90 percent of the entire landholding.

The majority of Tejon Ranch will be preserved and some areas may be open to public recreation while allowing three major developments to proceed without opposition under a deal announced Thursday between the ranch’s executives and environmental groups.

The agreement followed two years of confidential negotiations between the ranch and an environmental coalition that includes Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Audubon California.

But it has also fractured the local Sierra Club, with some members resigning from executive committee posts to protest their disapproval of the secret meetings that resulted in the deal.

High-ranking Sierra Club officials negotiated without consulting local members who could be impacted by the massive developments Tejon has proposed, said Jan de Leeuw, a UCLA professor and Sierra Club member in the Frazier Park area.

“All the concerns we have about traffic, air quality, sprawl, enormous commutes — all those concerns have gone out the window,” de Leeuw said.

Under the arrangement, Tejon will dedicate 178,000 acres to conservation and make an additional 62,000 acres available for purchase to realign 37 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and create a state park.

Tejon could develop the option-to-buy acreage if it’s not purchased by 2010, but Sierra Club's senior regional representative Bill Corcoran said the groups are sure the acquisitions are fundable and feasible.

During a news conference at Tejon Ranch headquarters Thursday morning, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hailed the agreement as an example of how two sides can work together to “protect the environment and the economy at the same time.”

The deal more than doubles the 100,000 acres Tejon Ranch had previously pledged to preserve when it announced plans several years ago to build two large communities.

The 23,000-home Centennial community would be in Los Angeles County while the 3,500-home Tejon Mountain Village, featuring golf courses, shopping centers and hotels is planned for southern Kern County.

Environmentalists said a key to striking the deal was Tejon’s willingness to scale back development from several ridgelines where endangered California Condors are known to forage.

The ranch is the largest chunk of privately owned land in the state. Its 426 square miles encompasses the ecological crossroads of the Mojave Desert, San Joaquin Valley and the Tehachapi and Coastal ranges.

Despite the deal, Tejon’s developments must still undergo state-required environmental reviews and obtain approval from Kern and Los Angeles counties. The project is still expected to face some challenges from nearby residents and other environmental groups not in on the deal over air quality, traffic and availability of water supplies.

At the news conference, Sierra Club’s Corcoran said “it was a difficult choice but we agreed this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” in response to questions about the groups’ pledge not to comment on environmental reports or oppose any aspect of Tejon’s developments.

Individual Sierra Club members can still comment or oppose some of the plans, Corcoran later said, just not under the club’s name.

But some feel that without the club — which has experts and the money to back lawsuits — their concerns won’t carry much weight.

Mary Ann Lockhart, who belongs to the mountain communities’ Condor Sierra Club, said local members will meet Monday with regional Sierra Club officials to discuss their concerns.

“It’s just like with anything, there’s always people with opinions that don’t agree with the main thought,” Lockhart said. “We’re trying to examine all the options and that might be different from what Sierra Club proper is doing.”

But the issue has clearly divided some locally.

De Leeuw posted a blog Thursday criticizing Sierra Club for excluding local members from negotiations with Tejon Ranch and he’s resigned his position on the executive committee of the Kern-Kaweah Chapter of the Sierra Club.

In response, Kern-Kaweah member Gordon Nipp said: “If the locals want to oppose it, they can do so ... Let them get involved, attend hearings, testify, write letters, find attorneys, instead of waiting for the Sierra Club (usually me in Kern County) to do it for them.”

The split also reached higher into the environmental realm. Center for Biological Diversity was part of the negotiation process until several months ago when it pulled out because of disagreements with some aspects of the plan.

“While there are a few aspects of today’s accord we can celebrate, including the potential acquisition of 49,000 acres for a state park, this deal contains numerous ‘poison pill’ provisions, including the development of Tejon Mountain Village in the heart of condor critical habitat and Centennial, the largest single development ever to be proposed in California,” said Peter Galvin, conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity.