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.