Monthly Archives: April 2011

Big Oil, Small Bird, and a Pipe Dream

Helen Higgins leads a group of protesters (file photo fom Feb. 2010 by Cindy Cotter)

Back to basics

The wrangling over Chevron’s proposed development of West Coyote Hills has become a morass of plans, objections, revisions, studies, claims, counterclaims, group allegiances and legal entanglement. It’s easy to lose sight of the core issue. Let’s get back to basics.

The land belongs to Chevron and is zoned for oil and gas. They’re asking the city of Fullerton to rezone so they can build. Opponents of development would prefer to restore and preserve the remaining oil property — coastal sage scrub, a diminishing habitat unique to southern California.

Community activists have challenged every chink in Chevron’s plans, leading to studies, reports, and expert testimony on earthquake hazards, noxious gases, water supply, traffic, air pollution, overcrowded schools, and endangered species. This approach has stymied Chevron’s efforts so far, but there’s a flaw.

You can win the battle and lose the war

Chevron has methodically responded to every challenge. Most recently they have brokered a deal to supply Fullerton with additional water at no price increase if needed. The water deal is merely the latest in a list of compromises, amendments and adaptations with which Chevron has countered anti-development arguments.

But a kinder, gentler development isn’t what most activists are after. Underneath their barrage of objections lies one obdurate goal that is not being met: A significant number of passionate people want to preserve the land wild and natural. It isn’t about minimizing the impact of development, it’s about stopping it cold. It’s about restoring and preserving a fragile habitat.

Who cares about gnatcatchers?

Take the controversy over a small bird, the California gnatcatcher. It’s a threatened species known to live in the hills. Opponents of development have used the gnatcatcher as a reason to oppose development. Chevron says they will leave enough open space to accommodate the birds. A biologist testifying for Chevron even said that the number of gnatcatchers rose after development in the adjacent property of Hawks Point.

An increase in the number of threatened birds would be good news if the point of protecting gnatcatchers were merely to protect the bird, but that’s not it. If you’ve ever wondered why anyone cares so much about a tiny bird most of us wouldn’t recognize, here’s why: The gnatcatcher is being used as an umbrella species — an indicator of the health of a habitat that you wish to protect.

Here’s the reasoning: To survive in the wild, plants and animals must have enough space to support a whole ecology. A hawk needs prey. A rabbit needs room to forage. A toad needs at least a temporary body of water. Insects feed on certain kinds of plants. And a species needs a large enough population to prevent inbreeding. But how much space is needed? How do you decide when you’ve got enough land for a healthy habitat? And how do you make that kind of decision in a fair and objective way when a developer is facing off against an environmental group?

That’s where the umbrella species comes in. An environmental group will pick a charismatic and threatened plant or animal that depends on a certain habitat for its existence, then launch a campaign to save that species by saving a large enough chunk of the land on which it depends to keep the habitat functioning as a self-sustaining ecological system.

Saving the gnatcatcher was never the real issue, and ensuring that development leaves room for the birds to survive even though their original habitat is gone doesn’t solve the problem. None of Chevron’s many concessions and compromises will satisfy those who want all the land intact as scrub.

Confronting the real issue head-on

Chevron has argued in a suit against Fullerton that the city has not negotiated in good faith. The landowner has done its level best to meet every objection and yet the city voted against their plan. I see Chevron’s point.

Here’s the crux. Anyone wishing to preserve the hills as open space must be able to deal with that issue, preservation. Instead the question is always framed in such a way that the only way to stop development is to poke holes in Chevron’s plan. Opponents of development talk about keeping water prices down or mitgating traffic, but those are distractions from the real issue.  The City of Fullerton determined in 1977, when the question first arose, that they couldn’t afford to buy the land, but has there been no serious consideration of that possibility since then.

I hear frequently from one side that there is money available from more than one source to buy and preserve all the land, but Chevron won’t sell. I hear from the other side that there isn’t enough money available, it’s just wishful thinking. That’s an important question. It should be confronted head on.

I suppose it’s just a pipe dream, but…

What would happen if the city council made any zoning change contingent upon Chevron first agreeing to let an objective third party name a reasonable price for the land? The city or any other party wishing to preserve the land would be given time to raise that money and present an alternate proposal. Then the city council would choose between the two (or more) plans, with Chevron agreeing to sell should their plan lose. That would finally put the real choices, development vs. preservation, in direct competition. I wonder.

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Here’s an interesting article from the Spring 2001 issue of Conservation Magazine on the concept of umbrella species. The authors explain what an umbrella species is, why they’re used, and why they’re not always a great way to protect a habitat. They mention the gnatcatcher in particular.

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Filed under development, Flora and Fauna, Housing, Politics, Uncategorized

Chevron Gets a Do-Over

In a 4:1 decision, the Fullerton City Council voted last night to reconsider Pacific Coast Homes’ proposal for a residential development in West Coyote Hills. Sharon Quirk-Silva cast the only dissenting vote.

It was only a matter of time before the matter came before the council again after having been voted down last May, after several months of public meetings and many years of contention. That decision temporarily stopped development, but it left open the question of what would happen to the land. Pacific Coast Homes, a subsidiary of Chevron, is unlikely to let it sit idle indefinitely.

Some expected the company to bring a new proposal to the council, which is likely to be more favorably inclined after several members were replaced in last November’s elections. Two of the three members who voted against the plan are no longer on the council.

But instead of starting the whole process over, Pacific Coast Homes (PCH) responded to their defeat by filing a suit against the city then offering to drop it if the council reversed its decision in a new vote.

PCH may bring a new proposal before the city at any time — the 6-month waiting period set in city code has already expired — but that would likely be the beginning of another protracted struggle. Last night’s settlement means that the council will vote on exactly the same plan that they denied last May. If the city introduces any new conditions, the settlement is void, though, according to Jeff Oderman of Rutan and Tucker, the law firm representing the city in the dispute with Pacific Coast Homes, the suit will not be renewed if the council votes in favor of development and then development is stymied by a third party.

“Anybody … that doesn’t agree with a decision that the council has made just sues the city and then they get, like, do-overs?” — Fullerton resident Elaine Mitchell, during public comments

“At any point PCH could bring this back through the regular process,” said council member Sharon Quirk-Silva, “and there’s a reason that they don’t want to bring it back through the regular process — and that’s because then you would have to go out and start the process again. I understand. That’s time, it’s money. It means many, many public engagements, it means re-looking at the EIR (Environmental Impact Report). I understand why they do not want to do that… But a decision was made… If you’ve seen council members up here over the years, you’re gonna know that we get on the soap box for something, and mine has been process, process, process. And that is something that I won’t waver on, it’s something that I believe in… Chevron certainly has the right to bring it forward, but under the threat of litigation is something that I do not support and I will not support this tonight.”

Pacific Coast Homes has spent years in negotiations with the city to build on their depleted oil fields in West Coyote Hills. In 1977 the city adopted the West Coyote Hills Master (Specific) Plan to guide the development of 1000 acres of oil fields in anticipation of Chevron’s decision to stop pumping oil. Since then about 420 acres have been developed. The plan in contention now is for the remaining 580 acres.

To move forward with the plan, the council would have to agree to rezone the land, which is now zoned for oil and gas. Rezoning has been opposed by those who wish to restore and preserve the land as one of the few remaining examples of coastal sage scrub.

In July of 2009, the city launched a series of meetings intended to involve the public in a decision-making process culminating in a vote of the council the following May.

July 8, 2009 – Informational meeting

July 27, 2009 – Parks and Recreation Commission

July 29, 2009 – Energy and Resource Management Committee

August 3, 2009 – Traffic and Circulation Commission

March 10, 2010 – Planning Commission – meeting one

March 18, 2010 – Planning Commission – meeting two

May 11, 2010 – City Council – meeting one

May 25, 2010 – City Council – not-s0-final decision

Pacific Coast Homes’ argument is that they have negotiated in good faith, modifying their plans to meet all objections, and the city council voted in an arbitrary and capricious manner, violating the 1977 agreement. Opponents to the plan insist the 1977 agreement was not binding and that the land is part of a diminishing habitat that should be preserved.

Members of the public expressed opinions on both sides of the argument, eight for the settlement agreement, eleven against.

Organizations for development:

Open Coyote Hills (This appears to be a coalescence of a group that has long advocated for the opening of the Robert E. Ward Nature Preserve. Ward is a former mayor who negotiated successfully for the donation of a portion of Chevron’s land to be set aside as a preserve, but the city has never had the money to open the preserve to the public. Opening the preserve is one of the conditions of the development.)

Fullerton Chamber of Commerce

Pacific Coast Homes (Jim Pugliese, project manager at Pacific Coast Homes, is on the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce.)

Organizations opposed to development:

Friends of Coyote Hills

Sierra Club

Sea and Sage – This is the Orange County chapter of the Audubon Society.

The next vote is tentatively set for May 17.

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Filed under development, Housing, Politics, Uncategorized, West Coyote Hills