When Shelley Sanderson and her husband, Scott, decided to buy a home in West Covina four years ago, they found a place she described as "sensational for a horse person." The home had a stable. More impressive was the fact that next to their backyard was the Ridge Riders Equestrian Center, a four-acre public facility where she could ride her horse.
The center, and an additional four-acre parcel that is home to a popular baseball field, are nestled within a neighborhood, shaded by eucalyptus trees and buzzing with activity. Horses prance about, kicking up dust in a psychological duel with their handlers. In the near distance, children chase pop flies and scoop up grounders on the Maverick field.
But this suburban oasis, enjoyed by hundreds of residents, could soon be paved over. The equestrian center and the ballpark are being put up for sale by the Valencia Heights Water Co., which has owned the property since the 1930s.
The chance to buy eight acres of prime land in Los Angeles County is attracting keen interest from developers. That's left Sanderson and others throughout the city to pin their hopes on West Covina City Hall, which they are pushing to try to buy the land.
Members of the City Council, which has been leasing the land from the water company for three decades, say they have long regarded the tract as a de facto part of the city's small, burdened park system. They plan on purchasing the property and letting it stay just the way it is.
"You just don't find much land like this around the [San Gabriel] Valley. A place families can go to spend good time together. Look around and most of what you see is houses, condos and malls," said West Covina Councilman Michael Touhey. "It's a quality-of-life issue, that's why we're willing to put the money on the table."
But the water company, feeling that the city's offer of $450,000 is far too low, believes it can sell the property to a developer for three times that much.
The water company's general manager, Dave Michalko, said that at least three private developers have expressed an interest in building on the land, and that one has formally bid on it.
The land, about a quarter-mile from the San Bernardino Freeway, is zoned for housing. But Assistant City Manager Jeff Collier says that zoning is superseded by the city's general plan, which states that the area must be kept open and available for recreation. As a result, it should be appraised far lower than the $1.5-million value the water district claims, city officials say.
Only a majority vote by the City Council--which earlier this month voted unanimously to try to buy the land for preservation--could modify the general plan.
The water company's Michalko called the city's $450,000 offer "an insult."
"We've been generous to the city for years," said Michalko, noting that for the last 37 years the company has leased the land to the city for $1 or $100 a year. "They can keep the land, but they've got to pay for it. . . . We've got to get what it's worth."
Michalko, whose company provides water to about 1,500 shareholding residents of West Covina, said rate increases implemented last year might have been avoided if the company had sold the property.
City Councilwoman Kathy Howard said she feels certain the city will end up with the property because it holds the trump card: the ability to turn down any request to amend the general plan.
Caught in the middle of all this are horse lovers, baseball enthusiasts and people who use the space to walk their dogs or just relax. Some worry about what a new development could do to the value of their homes, which they believe is bolstered by proximity to the recreational complex.
"When we were looking for a house," Shelley Sanderson said, "the second I went to the backyard and looked out at the center, I was hooked. I told my husband, 'We've found the perfect home.' "
Others believe that the city's effort to keep the land is symbolic of the larger fight to maintain open space in the densely developed San Gabriel Valley.
"There's just simply not enough land like this left out here. . . . When you come there on the weekend, or at night, the place is packed with kids and parents," said Earl Haugen, a school principal who is a Valencia Heights shareholder and a Maverick Field board member. "The baseball and the people with their horses, it's something else."
Sanderson said: "There's a sense in this of merely trying to hold on to what bit of land people around here have got left. . . . It would be devastating to lose this place."