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Forces Line Up For, Against Developing Hillside Area : Growth: Landowner envisions 1,300 luxury homes on 970 acres. Preservationists want site saved for a regional wilderness park.

December 08, 1991|DAVID AVILA and HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The battle for the Whittier Hills, one of the last undeveloped hillside areas in the Los Angeles Basin, rages between an oil company that wants to build luxury homes and preservationists who want to create a 4,000-acre wilderness park.

Chevron USA will propose to take 970 acres of this hillside land and buildmore than 1,300 luxury homes and townhouses priced from $300,000 to $800,000.

"What we envision is a lot of space for each of the homes in a gated community," project manager Katie Hower said. She said the development would replace rugged, almost inaccessible hillsides and canyons with homes in what she termed a "park-like setting," complete with horse trails and panoramic views.

Preservationists see the Chevron project as the death knell for the Whittier Hills. They say the development, in an old oil field, would provide the roads and rights of way needed to develop the rest of the hills. The area's other major landowners are Unocal and Rose Hills Memorial Park.

Leaders of the Whittier Conservancy, Friends of the Whittier Hills, some homeowner groups and City Council members Bob Henderson and Helen McKenna-Rahder are lined up against the Chevron proposal. They want the Chevron parcel to be part of a regional wilderness park. They say the untamed hillsides are an essential part of the town's heritage.

"The Whittier Hills are a unique natural resource," said Dave Cowardin, president of Friends of the Whittier Hills. "It's a sample of what existed (for) the last 1,000 years and what will disappear if we don't protect it."

Anti-development forces list a host of objections to the project. They say it will overburden area school systems, sorely tax aging water and sewage lines, and increase traffic congestion. But most of them concede that no form of development in the hills would please them.

They quote from county planning studies that define the area as "one of the finest undisturbed examples of natural vegetation remaining in the Puente Hills," with enough food, vegetation and nesting sites to support populations of "deer, coyotes, bobcats and badgers."

The hills are dotted with laurel sumac, coast live oak, sycamore and blue elderberry. Although most of the land is privately owned, residents for years have climbed past the No Trespassing signs to blaze trails through the carpet of mustard flowers, black and purple sagebrush, and dried grasses to explore sandstone caves and seasonal waterfalls.

The hills have "always been important to . . . those living here," Cowardin said. "They're synonymous with Whittier."

Because the proposed development is just outside the city limits, Chevron can win approval for the project from the county without the support of Whittier. The county considers the positions of local officials, however, when studying development proposals, Councilwoman McKenna-Rahder said.

The council has passed a resolution asking the county to include the city in the approval process for the development.

The issue promises to loom large in next year's City Council election. At least two candidates have said they are vehemently opposed to further development in the hills.

Backers of the development say opponents are being small-minded, trying to maintain the hillsides as a sort of extended back yard. No one stopped yesterday's home buyers from purchasing hillside homes, they say. Why should newcomers be denied their own home in the hills, their own piece of the California dream?

"People who are so sweet that they want to see birds and bees are not thinking rationally. There are areas they can go to," said Ramon Colome, who belongs to the North Friendly Hills Homeowner Assn. and favors the development.

Colome is among those who say the development's added roads would ease commuter traffic congestion in the area.

Although a formal development proposal is months away, Chevron's Hower has put together a slide show and press packet promoting the project, known as Murphy Ranch. And she has held numerous informational sessions with area groups, with some success.

Preservationists also have been lobbying for support. They are placing some of their hopes in a proposed countywide bond issue that would allot $31 million for the purchase of parkland in the Whittier area.

Hower estimated the value of the Chevron land alone at close to $70 million, and she insisted that Chevron's development plans would include hundreds of acres of open space for the surrounding community.

But Whittier resident and naturalist Julie Schneider is among those who say they will accept no development in the hills. "If you're into wildflowers, you don't have to drive to Gorman. You can go to the Whittier Hills," she said. "It's one place that's a five- or 10-minute drive from your home where you can find some silence."

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