How — Suddenly and Quietly — We Lost West Coyote Hills


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Chevron logo superimposed on undeveloped Coyote Hills

For those of you who are new to this issue, Chevron has been attempting to develop an oil patch in Fullerton for the better part of a generation.  Coyote Hills, along with the Brea-Olinda Oil Field, once constituted one of the largest oil fields in the world.  Production declined after decades of service and instead of a revenue generator, Chevron had several hundred acres of unused open space in the dead center of the LA Basin.  Chevron split Coyote Hills in two and developed East Coyote Hills through the 1980’s and 90’s.  After decades of urban sprawl expansion, West Coyote Hills (WCH) is the last significant open space in North Orange County.  It’s worth tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.  That land also contains hundreds of decayed oil wells and an unknown number of sumps, disposal sites, and other contamination.  It could cost Chevron somewhere between the low hundreds of millions to over a billion dollars to mitigate damage done to the land.

Three years ago, Fullerton voters rejected the development of WCH.  Since voting, the city’s official position on WCH had been largely ambiguous.  That all changed earlier this month.

Two weeks ago, based on the merit of Chevron’s proposal, the Fullerton City Council unanimously agreed to expand Chevron’s property rights to include building 760 homes.

This decision stands in direct contrast to the will of the people.  Fullerton voted by a 2:1 margin — and loudly said “NO” to development.  Based on the plain language of the ballot argument and the overall sentiment of voters, it’s plainly obvious that NO meant — and means — NO.   So how did we get from overwhelmingly rejecting development to approving a nearly identical deal without any public discussion nearly three years later?

First, let’s get a few facts out of the way.

  1.  The ballot measure rejected by Fullerton voters also rejected granting Chevron a right to build homes in exchange for a bunch of free crap the city doesn’t need.  The rejection, based on a plain reading of the Development Agreement, invalidated all previous agreements with Chevron.
  2. Fullerton ignored the vote and plain reading of the rejected Development Agreement and held all previous agreements with Chevron as valid.  This POLICY decision, a major decision impacting all residents, NEVER ONCE CAME BEFORE THE PUBLIC FOR COMMENT OR VOTE and was made some time ago.
  3. The City negotiated the new deal with Chevron behind closed doors and with ZERO input from the public.  The rumor circulating around Fullerton that the “Friends of Coyote Hills” (the main opposition group) was included in discussion is patently false.  Once the deal was struck, after three years of waiting, Fullerton residents had less than one month to understand what happened, agree with the issue, or disagree and form opposition.

I’ve had a little time to wrap my head around this. I still have a hard time explaining the output of this long process.  In short, the answer to the question of how we got here is simple:

In Fullerton, your vote doesn’t matter. 

If it mattered, we wouldn’t have heard our elected officials using their opinion on the merits of the proposed deal to justify approving their vote.

Wait, what?  Why wouldn’t an elected official use the merits of an idea as the basis for a vote?  Well, because we already decided the merits.  We had an election.  The merits aren’t in dispute.

Fullerton decided that the merits suck.  Again, we voted.  We said “no.”  No means no.

If a sitting member of the City Council wants to spend five minutes outlining why the deal with Chevron is a good deal, that necessitates concluding that the merits ARE in dispute.  If the merits of the plan are in dispute, then your vote doesn’t matter.  All five members did exactly that . . . so . . . what are we left to conclude?

That.  Sucks.

What do we tell the nearly two-third majority of Fullerton opposed to development in WCH?  How do we explain that this is what a healthy and good democracy looks like?  Can we honestly look our neighbors in the eye and believe that after nearly three years of dead silence that we should just accept not only the blatant undermining of a public vote, but that we should celebrate a process that deliberately constricted public input and critique to railroad an unpopular policy through the public?

When it comes to politics, concepts like transparency and limited government have their greatest potential to impact citizens at the local level.  Dealing with decisions that impact your friends and neighbors, while not always exciting, tends to transcend abstract concepts like principles and theory in favor of honest emotional response.

I’m angry with this decision.  I’m angry because something that should have been transparent was purposely muddied and restricted.  I’m angry because the people voted and consciously limited what its government could and should do.  Instead of listening, government just expanded to do what it wanted anyway.

I hope that you’re angry too.

 


About Ryan Cantor

Our conservative columnist, based in Fullerton, works as a Project Development Analyst and Strategic Planner.