Tag Archives: California gnatcatcher

Suit Challenges West Coyote Hills Development

The Center for Biological Diversity issued this press release today:

The Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of Coyote Hills, and the Sea and Sage Audubon Society filed a lawsuit Thursday to protect one of the finest remaining open-space areas in north Orange County. The 510-acre site in Fullerton is threatened by the West Coyote Hills development, approved by the city in July, which would be sited in north Orange County’s largest unprotected open space. The site is home to one of the largest populations of coastal California gnatcatchers, a threatened bird species that depends on vanishing coastal sage scrub habitat. The 760-home project would destroy the bird’s habitat on the site and fragment the remainder.

“The project would eliminate habitat for nearly a quarter of the gnatcatchers on the site,” said John Buse, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “But that’s just the direct effects — the remaining gnatcatchers would have to subsist in the scattered pockets of coastal sage scrub left by the development.”

In 2010, the Fullerton City Council voted to reject the West Coyote Hills project after a long and contentious review process. The project’s developer, a Chevron subsidiary, subsequently sued the city, which settled this lawsuit by agreeing to reconsider the project. The city did so in July, reversing its previous decision.

“It takes time to preserve a treasure — and that’s just what Coyote Hills is poised to become, an educational and recreational asset to the million residents in this densely developed, park-poor region,” said Diane Bonanno of Friends of Coyote Hills, a group that has worked to preserve the site for a decade. “We’ve also launched a referendum campaign to overturn the city council’s decision to turn the site into another large development complex. Volunteer signature gatherers are active throughout the city.”

The lawsuit, filed in Orange County Superior Court, challenged the city’s failure to disclose and eliminate the project’s effects on gnatcatchers, other rare species, global warming, water pollution, and other aspects of the environment.

“The city has failed to recognize how devastating the impacts of this project would be,” said Scott Thomas of the Sea and Sage Audubon Society. “The severely fragmented open space carved out by the plan could not adequately meet the needs of gnatcatchers or other sensitive species, nor would it meet the open space needs of the citizens of the area.”

The groups are represented by Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger of San Francisco.

Contacts:

John Buse, Center for Biological Diversity, (323) 533-4416
Diane Bonanno, Friends of Coyote Hills, (714) 572-9911
Scott Thomas, Sea and Sage Audubon Society, (949) 293-2915

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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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Edging Closer to a Development Decision

Jim Pugliese, project manager for Pacific Coast Homes, presents their plan to the Fullerton City Council at a public hearing on May 11, 1010 (Photo Credit: Cindy Cotter)

The Council should decide soon

Finally, after 30 years of conflict and negotiation, Fullerton City Council is on the brink of deciding whether to let Pacific Coast Homes, a subsidiary of Chevron, build on the last of Chevron’s abandoned oil fields in West Coyote Hills. Tuesday night the developer and a small army of consultants (two rows of seating were reserved for them) presented the project to the council as protesters marched outside. That was followed by 62 questions from the audience.

On May 25 the council will listen to public comment and are then expected to vote.

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Coyote Hills Development-Unanswered Questions

There are several things I’d like to know if it were up to me to decide what to do with West Coyote Hills, the last of Chevron’s played out oil fields in Fullerton.

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