Tag Archives: Friends of Coyote Hills

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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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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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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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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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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Planning Commission Recommends Approval of Hills Development

Last night, in what may be the beginning of the end of a thirty-year struggle, the Fullerton Planning Commission sent a proposal for the development of Fullerton’s last sizable open space to the city council with the recommendation that it be approved. In a five-to-one vote, the commission said yes to zoning changes that would allow Pacific Coast Homes, a subsidiary of Chevron, to build houses and commercial property on depleted oil fields in West Coyote Hills. Continue reading

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Protesters March to Fullerton City Hall

Protester marching against development of West Coyote Hills in Fullerton, Feb. 16, 2010. (Photo credit:Cindy Cotter)

About 75 people gathered in front of the Fox Theater on the corner of Harbor and Chapman Tuesday evening before marching through Fullerton to the city council meeting in a protest organized by Friends of Coyote Hills to oppose  development of 510 acres of open land in West Coyote Hills. The Council will decide later this year whether to approve a zoning change which would allow Pacific Coast Homes, a subsidiary of Chevron, to build housing there. Continue reading

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