Council Votes on Development Tomorrow Night

Tomorrow night Fullerton City Council will vote — again — on whether to allow Chevron to build homes on its depleted oil fields in West Coyote Hills. The meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. in the council chamber at city hall.

History: Chevron has been pumping oil from West Coyote hills since they bought the land from Murphy Oil in the early 1900’s (though Chevron was known as Standard Oil at the time). The oil field is largely depleted now, and Chevron would like the city to rezone it so that Pacific Coast Homes, a Chevron subsidiary, can build houses. They first presented their plan to the city in the early 1970’s. By 1977 a development agreement had been reached between Chevron and the city.

Ten years ago most of the land had been developed. Connie Spenger, a long-time Fullerton resident, watched the losing battle to stop the building on a portion of the oil property in La Mirada (east of Beach and north of Rosecrans) and decided Fullerton activists needed to be better organized. She founded Friends of Coyote Hills, which has been fighting to preserve the land ever since.

Chevron’s plan is to build 760 homes on large lots, leaving about half the land unbuilt, with parks and trails. They would also help open Robert E. Ward Nature Preserve, a contiguous piece of land which the city already owns but which it has never restored for public access.

The Approval Process: In July of 2009, the city held the first in a series of meetings to inform the community of the proposal and allow for public input. There were two information sessions, then a series of committee meetings in which city committees considered the plan as it affected their area of concern and then voted on whether to recommend the plan to the Planning Commission. Next the Planning Commission held two meetings to consider the recommendations of the committees and make their own recommendation to the Council.  Then the Council held two meetings. At the second meeting, on May, 2010, the Council voted against development.

It was understood that there would eventually be another vote. After 6 months Chevron could come back and start the process over. But they chose another approach. Rather than starting over on a lengthy and expensive task, they waited until after city elections had installed a new council that is likely to look more favorably on their proposal and then filed suit against the city for failing to negotiate in good faith. After all, they’d gone to a lot of trouble to try to meet every objection, hiring experts in many fields to fine-tune their plan. What grounds did the city have to vote against them? What was the point of the city requesting changes to the plan if they were only going to vote it down anyway?

Then Chevron offered to drop the suit if the city took a second vote and approved the development so Chevron wouldn’t have to start over at zero. Hence tomorrow night’s council meeting. If the council votes against the project, Chevron will go forward with the suit.

What I Hate about the Process: Some people look at Chevron’s suit as a kind of blackmail, but I don’t see that as the real issue. Sure it’s an unsavory tactic, but I can see Chevron’s point. They have negotiated in good faith. They’ve modified their plan repeatedly in an attempt to meet every objection. Now they’re supposed to start over and go through it all again? How many times?

But there is a problem here. There was opportunity for public input at every step. Over and over again both supporters and opponents stood in line to take their turn at the mic, ask questions, and offer opinions. In a sense the process was a model of community involvement, but that was largely a sham. Yes, the plan was challenged and amended to reflect public concerns — and that’s commendable — but the framework of the process was never opened up to consider the best use of the land, merely the much narrower question of whether to approve this use.

Opponents quibbled endlessly over a myriad of details — parking, earthquake safety, water supply, air pollution, endangered species, trail access, building materials, landscaping — but what else could they do? The only question on the table was whether to pass this plan. They could attend a meeting of the Transportation and Circulation Commission, for example, and present their argument that the city would be better served if the entire stretch of land was restored to a wild state and preserved, but at the end of the meeting the commission could only vote on how they thought Chevron’s plan would affect traffic. Period. So opponents who had a vision of gnatcatchers  calling in wild elderberry trees were reduced to critiques  of bus stops and traffic flow. And every meeting was structured the same way. Even some commissioners and committee members complained that they felt their hands were tied. Time and time again Chevron’s plan was presented and explained, people gave their arguments for and against, and then Chevron’s plan was voted on. No other plan was ever given serious consideration.

This is a model that works well in other cases. If, for example, the owner of a bar would like to serve food (and drinks) on an outdoor patio and needs a variance, he presents his plan, there’s some discussion of its merits, and then a vote. No one thinks it makes sense to offer an alternative plan, like: I think you should dig up the pavement and plant a tree. Or put in a child care center for patrons with kids. Or create a refuge for wounded pigeons.

But deciding what to do with a large plot of land — the last open space in the city — when the original use for the property is about to be abandoned is a different proposition by orders of magnitude. This isn’t a decision about whether a storefront can have awnings or a homeowner can build a higher wall than usual. It’s a decision about how to use a serious chunk of property in a situation where the city residents are deeply divided. Chevron bought the land and they pumped the oil. They intend to keep the mineral rights so they can keep drilling if they wish (slant drilling). Should they be entitled to more than that? Should it be up to an oil company to decide how a large portion of Fullerton is zoned once the oil company is done with it?

The zoning question is also a decision about residential housing in an environment where young families are seeking housing farther and farther away in order to find anything affordable. Is more high end housing really what the city needs? Or would homes that a high school teacher or a nurse could afford be of more benefit to the community?

I’m not trying to answer those questions. I don’t know whether moderate-income housing or the restoration and preservation of this last bit of coastal sage scrub would be a better use of Chevron’s brownfields than the high-end housing they intend to build. But I wish someone were seriously asking that question rather than narrowing the discussion to the merits of one plan.


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