The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to oppose a lease between the city of Whittier and an oil company that would allow drilling in the publicly-owned Whittier Hills.
The vote came after more than three hours of public testimony from Whittier residents and environmentalists.
The 1,280 acres of the Whittier Hills, which used to be a Chevron oil field, were preserved 20 years ago when county voters approved Proposition A. Under that measure, voters agreed to tax themselves in order to preserve open land in perpetuity. Prop A made the Board of Supervisors the governing body for the district that oversees the Whittier Hills.
But five years ago, the city of Whittier agreed to lease part of the land to Matrix Oil for drilling in exchange for royalties. The county supervisors said that agreement violates the public's trust.
"The notion that somebody, some business, can come in and cut a deal around the open space district and cut some kind of a real estate deal or a business deal ... stands logic on its head," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "What it really comes down to is you don't think you need to comply with the rules as established by the proposition."
Supervisor Mike Antonovich cautioned that approving the oil lease could jeopardize other park spaces financed by Proposition A.
"You're opening up Pandora's Box if we allow an exception for Whittier and deny all the others," Antonovich said. "You're going to make the other Prop A agreements vulnerable to future attacks, be it for whatever interests comes up."
The lease is tangled in litigation, with one judge ruling that Whittier needed Los Angeles County's approval to lease the land. The city has consistently disagreed with that position, according to the Whittier Daily News. In fact, Whittier boycotted Tuesday's hearing, later releasing a statement that said the county did not have jurisdiction over the issue.
"The city of Whittier will continue to respond to the project solely in accordance with orders issued by the court, " according to a statement issued by Whittier City Manager Jeffrey Collier.
Speaking before the Board of Supervisors, the president of Matrix argued the city and region would benefit from the drilling.
"This is a project that will create thousands of jobs — high-paying jobs — in Whittier and surrounding communities, create billions in taxes and royalties for the state, Whittier, Puente Hills Habitat Authority, and the county of Los Angeles," said Johnny Jordan. "All of this from a seven-acre drill site tucked away in a canyon, out of sight from houses."
Both oil and county officials believe it may ultimately be up to the courts to decide whether oil drilling can happen in the Whittier Hills. All sides are expected to be back in court in mid-November.
Updated to include response from Whittier city official.