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Public officials, activists await court ruling about oil drilling in Whittier hills

by Molly Peterson | Take Two®

Brenda Hills waters her flowers at her home in Whittier. She is the secretary of a neighborhood organization that is fighting plans to drill in the hills near her home. Grant Slater/KPCC

Lawyers for land conservationists, the city of Whittier, an oil company, and Los Angeles County will pile into a county courtroom Tuesday. They’re all anticipating a judge’s ruling about whether oil can be drilled on 30 acres of open space  in Whittier — land that was purchased with money that county voters set aside for conservation. 

What happens in that courtroom, and in Whittier, could have ripple effects well beyond this small patch of hills.

That’s what activists like Whittier resident Roy McKee say. McKee calls his town of 85,000 a suburban paradise, largely due to the acres of rolling, undeveloped conservation land smack in the middle of it.

“You know what, it’s the hills, the hills,” he says. “On my street there’s skunks, coyotes. There’s deer. So we’ve got all this wildlife. It’s the hills.”

Chevron once tapped these hills for oil. That stopped in the early ‘90s. The wells were abandoned, and talk turned to development. Then something unexpected happened: LA county voters passed Proposition A in 1992 – a parcel tax to raise more than half a billion dollars to preserve stretches of open space – including 1300 acres of  land in Whittier known as the Puente Hills. 

“It's very rare to have a wilderness area right in the middle of an urban area, and you can see it's beautiful,” McKee says. “Why would we want to change it?”

The City of Whittier has sought to do just that. In 2011, city leaders decided Proposition A land could be opened for oil drilling if the city compensated the county. Whittier granted a company called Matrix Oil the drilling rights for 30 acres of these hills in exchange for 30% of royalties.

McKee, his neighbor Nick Donovan, and other activists in a group called Whittier Hills Oil Watch say that’s not what they voted for when they punched their ballots in favor of Prop A. Donovan thought the land would be preserved in perpetuity. 

“In perpetuity to us meant forever,” he says.  “I think that’s what the taxpayers thought was going to go down. We’ve been sold out.”

When he says sold out, he’s not just talking about the city. A couple of years ago, anti-drilling activists were running out of money to fight Whittier’s deal; Donovan and McKee say they asked the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, a state-funded open space group, to take up the cause. 

The MRCA agreed. It, along with the Santa Monica Mountain Conservancy, sued Whittier to block the drilling plans.

Then last month the groups dropped their opposition. They settled their claims against Whittier and the oil company, clearing the way for drilling.

MRCA’s Chief of Natural Resources and Planning, Paul Edelman, denies claims the about-face is a betrayal.

“You know, when someone’s painting the MRCA as a villain, that’s kind of wild,” he says.

Edelman is unapologetic about what his group is poised to gain from the settlement -- a chunk of drilling revenue, up to $11.25 million a year. He says that money can go toward buying more open space.

“There’s this great new source of money, that probably just would have gone to the city or some other source, or maybe wouldn’t have happened at all,” he says. That could enable the MRCA “to do great things on a countywide basis that never would have existed.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina’s district includes parts of Whittier, and she questions that logic. A legal advisor to Molina, Martha Jimenez, says the supervisor feels blindsided by the MCRA’s settlement.

“You have an entity that was established for the sole purpose of establishing open space, actually allying itself with the city and with the oil company opposing the county efforts to protect open space,” Jimenez says. “It is frankly incredible.”

In October of last year, Los Angeles County decided to join the fight against the drilling plans, filing its own lawsuit against Whittier and Matrix Oil.

Neither the company nor the city would comment for this story. But back in February, Jim Markman, a lawyer for Whittier, criticized the county for waiting so long to oppose the drilling plans.

“This was studied environmentally for over two years with the county not complaining about the project, not objecting to it,” he said during an appearance on KPCC's "Air Talk."

Superior Court Judge James Chalfant issued a tentative ruling in the dispute in June. It suggests that, while some claims against Whittier have come too late, the city violated the public trust when it failed to seek approval for drilling from the county’s open space district.

“During the trial the judge said three to four times that his understanding of the law was that if you enter into something without the approval of the district, it’s void,” says Scott Kuhn, senior deputy county counsel. “So that’s what we’ve asked the judge to do.”

Judge Chalfant's final decision is expected Tuesday.  Open-space activists like Nick Donovan worry the judge could set a precedent if he decides in favor of the city's oil deal.  Donovan says if drilling is deemed OK on the Whittier land, other Prop A-protected sites are vulnerable to development too.

“If I was living in Malibu. I’d be very concerned. If I was living in the Palisades, I’d be concerned. If I was living in PV, you name it, you’re next,” he says. “So watch out.”

Davidson and other activists say they’d be reluctant to support any new open-space tax:  evidence of a newfound skepticism that could pose political obstacles for publicly-funded conservation efforts in the future.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story indicated that a judge would rule on this case on Monday. In fact, the court date is set for Tuesday. Paul Edelman's title with the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority was inaccurate. The copy has been corrected.

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