LA HABRA HEIGHTS — Rain has forced new gullies through dead leaves, and bird sightings are less frequent in Powder Canyon as winter sets in. But as the land quiets through another cold season, a development battle is heating up in La Habra Heights that could give the canyon a new future come spring.
On Tuesday, the city's Planning Commission is expected to back the Powder Canyon development--an exclusive country club project that would include an 18-hole golf course and 150 houses.
Last month, the commission voted 4-1 to approve the proposal, in concept, before the final development agreement was drawn up. After this week's vote, the issue will go to the City Council for final consideration.
This is more than a simple planning decision for the small, wealthy city where the median household income was $71,455 in 1989.
Both sides say they want to protect the rural integrity of their community. The question is, what does the city need more: a wild area or the revenue generated by the development?
At the center of the issue are 545 acres east of the city on privately owned Hart Ranch, which contains Powder Canyon. The canyon is home to mule deer, coastal live oak and the last two mating pairs of grasshopper sparrows in Los Angeles County. Preservation of the area was written into the city's General Plan.
But La Habra Heights is also a city that long ago decided to keep city coffers lean. It has just one business: the 73-year-old Hacienda Golf Club. City revenue, coming solely from property taxes, is less than $3 million a year.
The city can't afford to buy Hart Ranch, which is worth $8 million to $10 million, officials said.
For some residents, the idea of allowing a country club to be built in and around one of the last wild canyons in the county--especially in a city that lacks even a corner grocery store--strikes at the very soul of their community. La Habra Heights was designed as an oasis from urban sprawl, not another rich suburb, they argue.
But others, such as former Mayor Jean Good-Lietzau, believe that if citizens reject the Powder Canyon plan, the developers could sue and bankrupt the city.
"Everything I hold very dear is being threatened by people who have no vision or plan for the future," Good-Lietzau said. "Whenever I ask (opponents of the plan) what they would like to see developed there, they don't have an answer."
Sequoia Real Estate of Torrance, the developer, and Forum Country Club, which owns the Hart Ranch property, have not contemplated suing the city, said spokesman Lee Stitzenberger.
"We're preparing for the plans to pass and to make a nice development for the city," Stitzenberger said.
For proponents of the development, the Powder Canyon Country Club and surrounding houses are the best compromise to come before the city.
With this plan, the land will be developed all at once, not piecemeal. The proposal maintains the city's one-house-per-acre zoning, even though the general plan allows clustered housing on the Hart Ranch property.
The golf course would give the illusion of open space and, since just 150 homes are proposed, population density would not increase as much as it would with a less restrained developer, proponents argue.
"It's the best thing we've been offered for the land," said Claire Spothelfer, former president of the La Habra Heights Improvement Assn., a residents group. "With the money it will bring in, we may be able to repair some of our streets."
With more residents, the city will have to spend an additional $177,000 per year for basic services and build another fire station on the east side, said City Manager Noelia Chapa. But the developer has agreed to pay $6.8 million to mitigate city expenses, including building the fire station, preparing roads for heavier traffic and repairing damage to the environment caused by grading.
The country club taxes and additional homeowner property taxes are expected to generate $236,500 annually in city revenue.
But City Council members, who expect to find the canyon's future in their laps come January, will also have the opposition of many residents in mind.
In a town of about 3,000 registered voters, nearly 1,000 people have signed a petition asking the council to submit any change in the general plan, such as the Powder Canyon development, to a vote of the residents.
"When this city was incorporated (in 1978), we had eight basic goals written into the general plan," said Roland vom Dorp, of the Committee to Protect the General Plan.
"One of those was to protect Powder Canyon as a significant ecological area. The City Council shouldn't decide to just change that without a vote."
By law, the general plan can be altered up to four times a year by a simple council vote, vom Dorp said, but he hopes council members will take heed of the petition.
The council chambers have been crammed with 200 or more people when the Planning Commission has considered the development in the past. Council members can look forward to similar crowds, many of them arguing emotionally for preserving the wildness of the canyon.
"We're right in the middle of a wildlife corridor here," said Sona Vargas, a La Habra Heights native. "Three deer live in my mother's avocado grove next door. It's heartbreaking to see civilization come in here."
The council has scheduled a meeting in Powder Canyon Jan. 16 at 9 a.m. If the council decides to approve the development, opponents said a suit will be filed.