Up on Skyline Drive in La Habra Heights, where red-tailed hawks soar and cattle graze on the rounded ridges to the east, there is little hint of bulldozers coming.
But in the minds of many who long ago sought out this patch of peace and quiet in the Puente Hills, they are on the way.
Maybe not next year, or the year after, and certainly not until all the permits have been signed. But the dozers are coming, and their blades will reshape the grassy slopes that have buffered the hill people from the urban sprawl they fled.
A major Southern California developer, Walnut-based Shea Homes, has an option from Shell Oil Co. to buy 572 acres above Rowland Heights and next to La Habra Heights. The company wants to build a shopping center and 744 homes, many of them densely clustered along the ridge line east of Fullerton Road in county territory. It is a major development, and if the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ultimately approves the project, it may usher in a new era of hillside development in a region where horses and one-acre lots are a way of life.
Anger on Both Sides
Residents on both sides of the hills are upset. They warn that the density and layout of the development threaten the very thing that lured them to this rural oasis: the promise of plenty of elbow room. They fear it will bring more traffic, noise and pollution to an area already struggling against outside pressures to maintain its country character.
"This definitely could become a threat to our life style," warned Sandy Grinkey, who moved to unincorporated Rowland Heights 16 years ago and lives on an acre of land not far from the Shea Homes site. If the project goes through, she predicted, the entire ridge line from Fullerton Road east to Diamond Bar will become fair game for developers. "It will send a clear signal that it is OK to put little houses all over the hills," Grinkey said.
At least one other home builder, Lusk Homes, has approached the county about developing 270 acres it owns just east of the Shea Homes project.
Wildlife biologists also warn that development endangers migration routes of deer and other animals. Moreover, they say, it will threaten several dense and extensive stands of California walnut trees, once plentiful but increasingly rare in the region.
The Shea Homes site is classified by the county as a Significant Ecological Area, a designation that provides some protection for hillsides and canyons by making it more difficult for the land to be developed. Developers must demonstrate an overriding need to build on the property before the county gives its go-ahead.
'Losing Something Special'
"Profit is not a good enough reason," said Sherry Teresa, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game. "We are losing something special if we allow this development to go in as proposed. It is a place where people can hike and find some solitude."
(Spokesmen for Shea Homes did not return repeated calls for comment on the project.)
But for all the local concern, the project has an attractive trade-off for county officials, one that may prove too good to pass up. For several years now, the county, and in particular Supervisor Peter F. Schabarum, whose 1st District includes Rowland Heights and the surrounding foothills, has wanted to widen and realign Fullerton Road.
It is one of several two-lane roads that twist through the hills from north to south. And like the others, Fullerton Road is congested, dangerously so at rush hour as motorists seek alternatives to clogged freeways. But the county has been unwilling or unable to finance the widening and realignment of this country corridor. It is a $3-million to $5-million grading and paving job, one that most traffic experts agree would ease congestion on Fullerton as well as other key arteries through the hills such as Hacienda Boulevard and Colima Road.
One of Schabarum's top aides, Ray Andersen, said the supervisor has been "very interested in widening that road for a long time . . . but the county cannot afford it in its current budget."
Tract Map Proposal
The solution may rest with Shea Homes, which has residential projects under way in Walnut, southern Orange County and in another corner of Rowland Heights on Sunrise Drive. As part of its proposed tract map for the Shell property, the company shows a realigned Fullerton Road arcing through its development about half a mile east of the current road. It would be much more direct across the hills, and probably four lanes wide. The new road would turn south at Rowland Heights Water Co.'s big storage tanks and eventually rejoin old Fullerton Road near Whitehill Drive, not far from Whittier Boulevard and the Orange County line.