Tag Archives: development

Voters to Decide Fate of West Coyote Hills in 2012

Chevron’s plans to develop the last significant open space in Fullerton have been stymied once again. Last night, after the success of two petitions opposing the development agreement between the city and the oil company, the Fullerton City Council decided to let voters settle the question in an election in November 2012.

It’s been a long and bumpy road to reach this point. Most of the former oil fields in north Orange County have already been developed. The remaining land in Fullerton has been the focal point of a pitched battle between those who favor Chevron’s plan for an upscale residential development complete with open space and trails, and those who prefer to leave the land wild as an example of the west coast’s dwindling coastal sage scrub.

In July of 2009, the City of Fullerton launched a well-attended series of public meetings at which Chevron’s plans were explained and voted on, first by a series of committees and then by the council. That process concluded nearly a year later in May of 2010 when the council, in a vote that surprised many, turned thumbs down on development. Chevron didn’t give up. Instead they filed suit against Fullerton, arguing that the city had failed to negotiate in good faith; since Chevron had met all objections with a series of modifications, compromises and deals, they felt their plan should have been approved.

Next Chevron offered to drop the suit if the council would reconsider its vote. In April of 2011 the council, whose membership had changed after the November elections, overturned its decision of a year earlier and voted to approve Chevron’s plan after all.

But that wasn’t the end. Friends of Coyote Hills, who have fought to preserve the hills since the group’s formation in 2001, collected signatures on four petitions for referendum, two of which succeeded. That gave the city council the option of reversing their decision themselves or leaving the question to the voters, a process sometimes called “the people’s veto.” Last night they voted to put it on the ballot. Now Fullerton voters in the November 2012 election will decide whether honor the development agreement with Chevron or overturn it.

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Council Ok's Chevron's Development Plan, Opponents Plan Referendum

Last night the Fullerton City Council voted 4-1 to approve Chevron’s plan to build 760 houses on 510 acres of depleted oil property in West Coyote Hills, thus overturning the Council’s earlier decision in May 2010. The reversal was expected. The vote in 2010 was close, and city elections in November had changed the makeup of the Council, replacing two of the council members who had voted against development.

Last night’s vote fulfills the terms of a settlement Chevron proposed for a suit it filed against the city last August for a failure to negotiate in good faith. The terms of the settlement required that the council take a second vote and approve the project. Chevron could simply have begun the process of seeking a zoning change all over from scratch, but that would have meant repeating an expensive and time-consuming process.

Friends of Coyote Hills, a group formed ten years ago to oppose development in favor of preserving open space, announced today that it will begin collecting signatures of registered Fullerton voters to petition for a referendum in the hopes that the voters of Fullerton would overturn the City Council’s decision. Enough signatures would halt development until an election could be called.

A referendum, if it succeeds, will still not settle the issue. Voters would not be able to vote on an alternative to Chevron’s plan, merely to nullify the Council’s vote, so the question of what to do with Fullerton’s last significant open space would remain.

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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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West Coyote Hills Hearing Postponed

5/11/2011
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE PRESS RELEASE #09511
Subject : West Coyote Hills public hearing postponed
Contact : Joan Wolff, Planning Consultant, Community Development Department    (714) 738-6837
Sylvia Palmer Mudrick, Public Information Coordinator, Fullerton City Manager’s Office    (714) 738-6317

The planned Tuesday, May 17, public hearing before the Fullerton City Council on the proposed West Coyote Hills project is being postponed until July.

The new date for the hearing will be Tuesday, July 12.  The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. in the Council Chamber of Fullerton City Hall, 303 W. Commonwealth Ave. The request to postpone the hearing was made by the applicant, Pacific Coast Homes. Al Zelinka, community development director for the city, said the reason for the request is that the applicant and city staff “identified a procedural oversight pertaining to review of the proposed project by the Orange County Airport Land Use Commission.” The 510-acre West Coyote Hills site is bounded on the north by La Habra, on the east by Euclid Street, on the west by the Hawks Pointe development, and on the south by Rosecrans Avenue.  Gilbert Street divides the property from north to south. Pacific Coast Homes proposes to build a maximum of 760 housing units in an approximate 180-acre portion of that area.  Other components of the project include a 5.2-acre neighborhood commercial development, and approximately 283 acres of open space and recreational uses, including the 72-acre Robert E. Ward Nature Preserve.    Further information about the public hearing or the project may be obtained by calling Joan Wolff, planning consultant for the city’s Community Development Department, at (714) 738-6837. Persons requiring special accommodations to attend the July 12 meeting are asked to notify the Fullerton City Clerk’s Office at (714) 738-6350 prior to that date.

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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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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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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: http://bit.ly/g5sNWV

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

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