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.


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.



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.


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

Cal High Choir Sings for WCCCC

Monday night the California High School Choir filled the Southern California University of Health Sciences (SCUHS) theater with the cheerful sounds of old standards and seasonal favorites at a meeting of the Whittier County Community Coordinating Council (WCCCC).

Dan Hawkins conducts the California High School Choir at a meeting of the Whittier Community Coordinating Council on Dec. 6, 2010.

After President Toby Chavez called the meeting to order, Jean Wall, treasurer, introduced Hubert Chang, new executive director of Marketing and Advancement for SCUHS.

Chang said the university wishes to be a “friendly partner” and a “useful resource” for the surrounding community. The campus is a Red Cross designated disaster center.

Wall pointed out that the school allows the council to use the theater free of charge (though perhaps if they charged a fee they would be able to fix that chair whose seat fell off when I tried to sit in it).

The campus has also recently re-opened their track to the community. It had been a popular cite for locals to walk or jog, but was closed to the public in July after a rash of break-ins in the community last July, including cars broken into in the campus lot next to the track.

Next the choir filed onto stage.

Dan Hawkins conducts and Tim Gudz accompanies the California High School Choir at The Southern California University of Health Sciences Dec. 6, 2010.

Conducted by Dan Hawkins and accompanied by Tim Gudz, they entertained an audience of about 50. Wall said that local high school choirs usually provide the entertainment for each year’s Christmas program.

(More photos of the choir are available here.)

The council, a community advocacy group representing unincorporated Whittier, holds monthly meetings rotating among three locations. After the entertainment Lt. Al Reyes of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office reminded the audience to lock their cars and keep valuables out of view, and advised anyone who sees a crime to “be a good witness” without “inserting yourself in the problem.”

Andrea Villa, field deputy for Supervisor Don Knabe, fielded questions about traffic issues and hazardous waste pickup.

Lt. Al Reyes, LA County Sheriff's Department

Andrea Avila, Supervisor Knabe's office

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Pro-Development Candidates Win Council Majority

Supporters of the proposed development of Chevron’s land in West Coyote Hills appear to have gained a majority of seats on Fullerton’s City Council yesterday. Chevron has long sought zoning changes which would allow it to build homes on the last of it’s abandoned oil fields in Fullerton, but activists wishing to restore and preserve the chaparral in a natural state have stymied their efforts.

In May the five-member Council voted 3-2 against development, but Chevron is free to try again. Yesterday’s election may have improved the oil company’s chances of getting the approval they need to begin building.

Two council members were in secure seats: F. Richard Jones,who voted in favor of development,and Sharon Quirk-Silva, who voted against. Three seats were up for grabs. Of the three, two look likely to be filled by pro-development candidates. The third could go either way.

Don Bankhead, whose term had expired, was re-elected. He voted in favor of development last May.

Doug Chaffee is the likely replacement for Pam Keller who was termed out and chose not to run again. Pat McKinley is running closely behind Chaffee in the unofficial results. Chaffee voted against Chevron’s development proposal when it came before the Planning Commission in March, while McKinley has said he favors development.

Bruce Whitaker is leading the race to serve the rest of Shawn Nelson’s term. Nelson left to take a seat on the Board of Supervisors. Whitaker, also a planning commissioner, voted in favor of Chevron’s development plan in March.

The Council will probably look like this:

Don Bankhead – For West Coyote Hills Development

F. Richard Jones – For West Coyote Hills Development

Sharon Quirk-Silva – Against West Coyote Hills Development

Doug Chaffee – Against West Coyote Hills Development or Pat McKinley – For

Bruce Whitaker – For West Coyote Hills Development

Election results are available from the Orange County Registrar.

UPDATE (11/23/2010): The Orange County Registrar of Voters certified the results of the November 2nd election yesterday. McKinley overtook Chaffee, leading by 90 votes. The Orange County Register calls that “close but probably beyond the reach of a recount.” This leaves us with a newly constituted city council that is (so far as we can tell from public statements) 4:1 in favor of development in West Coyote Hills.

UPDATE (11/30/2010): Chaffee is paying for a recount. OC Register’s story:

UPDATE: (12/16/2010): Recount canceled. OC Register’s story

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Filed under Politics, West Coyote Hills

"What Love Looks Like" by Kurt Bensworth

Last Saturday I met Kurt Bensworth hawking his first novel, What Love Looks Like, at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in the Amerige Heights Town Center in Fullerton.

Bensworth’s tale of first love is set in Orange County where he grew up and still lives.

“The story fell in my lap several years ago,” he said. “When I explained it to my wife, she told me, ‘Ok, honey, you have a choice. You’ve been talking about writing, and I know you do a little writing here and there, but the truth is, there’s a story here. Either write it or stop talking about it.’ ”

“There are two high school kids in Tustin High School, and I describe places in Newport Beach and Huntington Beach. A lot of Orange County people would certainly recognize the places that I speak about in the book.”

It took Bensworth “a good year, a solid year” to write the semi-autobiographical love story.

“It was a very emotion-filled writing year. I think I felt everything all over again. … A lot of nights I started at 10 o’clock and I’m not finished till 2. I’m working on my second book right now, but on my first book there were a lot of late nights.”

Explaining that emotional involvement, he said, “I don’t think love ever dies. If you loved somebody, there’s always going to be that little piece of your heart, even if the relationship ended badly, even if you were divorced or something happens or somebody passes away. It’s part of who you are. It’s part of your general make-up from who you were then and who you will be. It’s all part of you.”

Although Bensworth has done other writing, his previous work was more likely to be educational material about computers and software. Love novels are a new venture. And he’s very specific that his genre is love, not romance.

“It’s a completely different genre. Seriously. There is a difference. They put me in fiction. They won’t put me in romance…. Nicholas Sparks would not be put in romance. They put him in fiction, because that’s just how it’s done.”

Bensworth expects to be at Barnes and Noble again today (Thursday, Oct. 14) from 4  to 7 p.m. for a book signing. People “can sit down and discuss their first loves to me if that’s what they want to talk about, or anything else they’d like to talk about, because, you know what? Everybody has a story.”

You might even want to by a copy of his book. You can visit the bookstore or order from Bensworth’s website.

“If you come down and you pick up the book and you read it, I promise you I’ll strike an emotional chord with you somewhere down the road.”


Barnes and Noble
Amerige Heights Town Center
1923 West Malvern Avenue, Fullerton, CA 92833
(714) 871-9855

Kurt Bensworth

You can also meet Bensworth at monthly meetings he hosts for the Orange County satellite of Independent Writers of Southern California

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Hometown restaurateur John Lascari has opened a new cucina in La Habra’s Westridge Plaza. When I visited the restaurant at the former site of Pasta Bravo a month ago, the signs weren’t up, but Jim and Shirley Pierce, of Whittier, had found the restaurant anyway.

“We just made a trip to Italy in May. All the food we had in Italy, we said one thing: ‘When can we get back to Lascari’s?’ The food (in Italy) is very bland.”

The Pierces are longtime devotees of the Lascari’s chain. They started eating at the first Lascari’s in the 1970’s when it opened on Whittier Boulevard east of Santa Gertrudes. That location now houses the Taco Shack.

La Habra’s new store is part of a major expansion. Jorge Cueva, who’s in charge of opening new restaurants for the chain, told me he was about to open six new locations, two stores a month for three months. “We’re ready to take this business to the next level,” he said. “Next comes franchising.”

The Lascari’s brand includes three styles of restaurant: Full-service, deli, and cucina. The cucinas offer the same great food, but there are no food servers. And, Cueva pointed out, cucinas give a senior discount all day, unlike the full-service restaurants which reduce prices for seniors from 2-5 p.m. only.

“The senior special is great,” Jim said. “We can never finish, and the wine is great.”

“I started at the top (of the menu),” said Jim, “and worked my way down — even the eggplant; and I don’t like eggplant.”

Lascari’s Cucina
1360 S. Beach Blvd
La Habra, CA 90631


Filed under Restaurants

Fullerton Candidate Positions on West Coyote Hills Development

Fullerton’s City Council elections in November could make all the difference in Chevron’s bid to build houses on their oil property in West Coyote Hills.

West Coyote Hills, July 2009 (Photo credit:Cindy Cotter)

On May 25, the Council voted 3-2 against a zoning change that would have made development possible, but now three of the five council seats are open, two because the incumbents’ terms have expired (Don Bankhead and Pam Keller) and one because Councilman Shawn Nelson won a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Two council members will hold their seats: Sharon Quirk-Silva, who voted against development and F. Richard Jones, who voted for it.

Who’s For and Who’s Against Development

Seven candidates are vying for the two four-year seats for which the terms have expired.

Johnnie Atkinson – AGAINST (FO – Mid-Septemberr)

Don Bankhead – FOR (OCR-9/30) (FO – Mid-September)

Marty Burbank – FOR (OCR-9/30) (FO – Mid-September)

Doug Chaffee – AGAINST (OCR-9/30) (FO – Mid-September)

Jesse LaTour – AGAINST (OCR-9/30) (FO – Mid-September)

Barry Levinson – AGAINST (OCR-9/30) (FO – Mid-September)

Pat McKinley – FOR (OCR-9/30) (FO – Mid-September)

Greg Seborne – FOR (OCR-9/30) (FO – Mid-September)

Four candidates are running in a special election to serve the remaining two years of Shawn Nelson’s open seat:

Roland Chi – FOR provisionally (OCR – 9/30) (FO – Mid-September)

Tony Fonte – AGAINST (OCR – 9/30) (FO – Mid-September)

Aaron Gregg – FOR provisionally (OCR – 9/30) (FO – Mid-September)

Bruce Whitaker – FOR (OCR – 9/30) (FO – Mid-September)

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Filed under Housing, Politics, West Coyote Hills