County planners describe it as vacant space, but residents of the area around the little canyon on county land near the junction of the Orange and Pomona freeways say it's a gem of a natural setting where deer graze and horned owls nest.
"I think the county sees this as just a dirt lot," said Philip Duarte, standing at the mouth of the canyon, which has been pegged by developers as the site for a 255-unit condominium for senior citizens. Mature live oaks covered the slopes, and bird songs resounded.
The controversial proposal includes a challenging engineering feat: flattening a pair of mound-like hills bordering the canyon, which is on unincorporated land between Diamond Bar and Rowland Heights, in an area bounded by Colima, Brea Canyon and Pathfinder roads.
The county estimates that the builders would have to move 1.45 million cubic yards of earth to level the land and fill in the valley on the 75-acre site.
Duarte, 40, who teaches vocational classes in Pomona and whose backyard overlooks the canyon, shook his head uncomprehendingly. "My wife says that we've put up with ants, skunks, gophers and rattlesnakes since we moved here," he said, "but she still prefers all of that to the developers."
Today, at its regularly scheduled public hearing, the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission will consider the developer's application for a zoning change. Current zoning, because of the hillsides, permits only 43 single-family homes on 15,000-square-foot lots. If approved, the new zoning would allow 61 multi-unit town houses on graded land.
The developer is Anaheim-based Arciero & Sons, which has extensive holdings in the eastern San Gabriel Valley. Frank Arciero Jr., a principal in the firm, said the development would provide a needed resource. "This project is for active adults of 55 or over," he said. "It's the only project of its kind that I know of in the San Gabriel Valley." He said the other facilities for senior citizens in the area provide "congregate care."
The proposed condominiums would sell for between $140,000 and $160,000, Arciero said. The property is currently owned by Walter McBee & Associates. Arciero said his firm's purchase of the land is contingent on approval of the zoning change. "The price is not economically feasible for single-family homes," he said.
Arciero dismissed as inconsistent residents' criticisms that the project would disrupt the natural setting. "What happened to them when they moved into their houses?" he said. "They weren't concerned when their own houses were built there, were they?"
Opponents say the plan would not only eliminate an area where 35 species of wildlife have been seen, but also gorge the community with traffic. "People didn't move here to become part of an on-ramp to a condo community," said Duarte.
Civic leaders have also expressed concern off the record that the county may smooth the way for the condominium plan because of a long-standing relationship between the plan's principals and Supervisor Pete Schabarum.
The firm of Lind & Hillerud, the project's civil engineer, has been a major contributor to Schabarum's election campaigns, giving $19,500 between 1981 and 1986.
The Arciero family, whose holdings include a development company, a concrete company and a winery, has given Schabarum more than $4,000 in personal gifts during that period, according to financial disclosure forms.
One Diamond Bar civic leader said the developers are using Lind & Hillerud and the firm's president, Wesley Lind, as a prod to get the plan approved. "You see all the money he's given," said the civic leader, who did not want his name used. "They hire Lind to ram it through."
Schabarum acknowledged that the two firms were contributors but said the relationship would not affect his objectivity. He said he has discussed the condominium proposal with both.
Supervisor Has Clout
"I assume you know the Arcieros have been around for a while, and so have I," he said. "I suspect they've developed eight or 10 different projects in my district over the last 15 years. During the normal course of events, either they or Mr. Lind, who is generally their engineer, visit to talk about several subjects. This one has been the subject of conversations going back three years."
Schabarum is widely recognized as having preeminence in land-use decisions in the San Gabriel Valley, which he has represented for 15 years. The zone change application would have to be approved first by the Regional Planning Commission, then by the Board of Supervisors. In matters relating to Schabarum's district, the other four supervisors have traditionally supported his positions, just as he has supported their positions in matters relating to their districts.
Schabarum said he had not committed himself on the project. "They said they were filing an application, and 'What's your reaction to a senior citizens project?' I said, 'I don't know, and I'd like to see it (the application).' "