To put the battle over West Coyote Hills in track (as opposed to tract) terms, the city of Fullerton proclaims it has won the event while development foes contend a race is still on.
“City Prevails in West Coyote Hills Litigation,” reads a Feb. 27 press release from the city in regards to the California Supreme Court on the same day denying a petition for review filed on Jan. 15 by the Friends of Coyote Hills regarding West Coyote Hills development approvals.
That essentially means the state Supreme Court is letting stand a September 2017 California Court of Appeal ruling in Friends of Coyote Hills vs. City of Fullerton (Pacific Coast Homes) that allows limited development to continue in West Coyote Hills.
East Coyote Hills is filled with residential neighborhoods but the 510-acre West Coyote Hills is the largest underdeveloped tract in North County. Dating back to 1890, it was a major oil field but extraction ceased long ago and, after keeping it fenced off for decades, landowner Chevron Corp.’s Pacific Coast Homes came up with plans to build hundreds of homes there.
The grass-roots Friends of Coyote Hills was formed in 2001 to protect the land that members consider a biodiversity hotspot, a critical habitat, an important part of the San Gabriel River watershed and an excellent recreational area for nature lovers as the hills overlook a dense urban area. Some critics also argue the tract is unsuitable for residences because it sits above an active earthquake fault and/or has been contaminated by oil and gas extraction.
Friends of Coyote Hills credits its pressure with delaying Fullerton City Council votes on draft environmental impact reports for the Pacific Coast Homes project in 2003, 2006 and 2008, as well as a 3-2 council vote against the project’s final EIR in 2010.
However, under threat of a lawsuit from Chevron, the council approved the EIR on July 12, 2011. Later that year, Friends of Coyote Hills qualified a ballot measure to overturn that approval, and the council set a Nov. 2012 election on the referendum which, if passed, would let the project continue.
Despite Measure W’s defeat in the election, the Fullerton council in 2015 approved a development agreement with Chevron. Friends of Coyote Hills, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Friends of Harbors, Beaches, and Parks filed a lawsuit against the city in February 2016. That October, the city prevailed in Orange County Superior Court.
The plaintiffs, known collectively in court as the “Friends,” appealed this decision to the California Court of Appeal. On Dec. 6, 2018, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Appellate District of the Court of Appeal also sided with the city and Pacific Coast Homes. The Friends filed a petition for review with the state Supreme Court in January, which led to Wednesday’s denial.
“The end of this litigation means the city can work with the private property owner to begin a series of initial trail improvements so that our community can begin to enjoy the natural amenities of the West Coyote Hills area and the city’s Robert E. Ward Nature Preserve,” states Fullerton City Manager Ken Domer in the press release. “We look forward to working with all members of the community to see over 40 years of efforts come to fruition in the adopted Path Forward, allowing limited development but preserving as open space the majority of West Coyote Hills, to include over 217 contiguous acres between Gilbert Street and Euclid Street.”
“It came as a great disappointment today when the California State Supreme Court denied our petition review our Measure W lawsuit,” posted president Angela Lindstrom on the Friends of Coyote Hills website on Wednesday. “It doesn’t mean they don’t think it’s important or that they side with the city or Chevron or The Friends, but that they had too many other cases to review.
“What does this mean for voters’ right to referendum? It’s hard to say when the tactic used here may be repeated elsewhere. Some other brave civic group will have to fight that battle, and perhaps set a legal precedent we were not able to do here.”
As defeatist as that sounds, Lindstrom goes on to tick off accomplishments by the Friends since 2001, including having staved off development for 18 years, creating more time for the city to raise money to buy the land from Chevron and convincing the developer to double the amount of open space in Ward Nature Preserve.
“So where do we go from here? Acquisition of the rest of the site is now much more expensive,” Lindstrom concedes. “But ironically, I no longer believe this is a money issue: this is a people issue. Chevron can agree to sell the rest of the property for $120M ($150M-$30M) by allowing us, say, two years to raise the money. The council can agree to do something great and lasting by working with the Friends to keep looking for funding.
“Since the land is now valued at its highest entitlement, Chevron can take advantage of donating the land to the maximum tax write-off.”
Lindstrom ends with, “Let’s pick ourselves up and save all of Coyote Hills as a park and preserve for now and the future.”
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.