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Orange County | ORANGE COUNTY ELECTIONS 2002

Open Space Becomes a Litmus Test

Fullerton candidates' position on the pace of development of West Coyote Hills is expected to make the difference in voter support.

November 01, 2002|Vivian LeTran | Times Staff Writer

Preservation of Fullerton's last large swath of open space -- 510 acres of wild, natural habitat called West Coyote Hills -- has emerged as a hot topic this election season, with some residents questioning whether more development will overwhelm the city.

Although West Coyote Hills appears nowhere on Tuesday's city ballot, the names of nine council candidates do, and the five-member council is expected to decide on plans for the property sometime next year, city officials said.

Six candidates are competing to fill out the remaining two years of Councilman Chris Norby's term. Norby won election to the Orange County Board of Supervisors in March. Candidates in the special election for Norby's seat are Angela Chen Lindstrom, Kerry H. Knapp, Vance D. Blaisdell, Shawn Nelson, Chuck Munson and Ralph G. Baker Jr.

Candidates for two full-term council positions are incumbents Don Bankhead and Jan M. Flory, and contender Leland Wilson. The top two vote getters will serve four-year terms.

Some residents say they will vote for candidates based on their stance on development of West Coyote Hills, an expanse of coastal sage that is home to endangered gnatcatchers. The area is slated for development by property owner Pacific Coast Homes, a subsidiary of Chevron.

"We're building too much too fast in the last couple of years," said Suzette Montgomery, 40, who hikes and bikes the nature trails along the former oil fields with her children.

Most of the recreational trails used by county residents run along homeowners' backyards or near road traffic, she said.

"It's ridiculous to ship our kids out to Huntington Beach to the nature center there when we have this scenic space in our city's own backyard that can be used as a educational resource with its own nature center," Montgomery said.

"I definitely will choose candidates based on their stand on the issue."

Early plans still under negotiation include limited-density developments of about 760 homes, an elementary school and some commercial shopping. Construction would take place around pockets of gnatcatcher habitat. In addition, Pacific Coast may provide an endowment to build, maintain and operate a nature center on the site.

A few candidates say the land should not be developed at all.

"There's a rural character of Fullerton that comes from natural, open spaces, not urban parks," said Lindstrom, 36. "Community residents are trying to save their neighborhoods, and the city has not conducted an open dialogue with the public on this issue yet."

Blaisdell, who also is running for the Norby seat, vowed to preserve the area too.

"Fullerton is now experiencing a development boom. I've personally enjoyed visiting the new stores and viewing the model homes, but I've also noticed the hills disappearing," said Blaisdell, 55. "I will fight to save Coyote Hills."

Other candidates say they are concerned about the West Coyote Hills issue but don't explicitly address the issue on their campaign statements.

"There's a sense of urgency with this land because it's the last biggest one, and it's set off people's alarm that the open spaces might be threatened," said Nelson, 35, who would support some low-density housing developments. "But we have to respect Chevron's proposals for some housing developments."

The hilly terrain in question is in the city's northwest end, bordered by Euclid Street and Rosecrans Avenue, and surrounded by older housing developments.

Oil was pumped from the hillsides for about 70 years until drilling operations were shut down in the mid-1990s. Today, West Coyote Hills offers a remarkable, 360-degree vista of Huntington Beach, Los Angeles and Santa Catalina Island from its highest point. The property is valued at about $300 million, city officials said.

Bankhead, Fullerton's current mayor who is running for reelection, said that no formal plans have been presented to the city yet and that no decisions can be made on the property until U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials approve an environmental impact report early next year.

Bankhead said he would prefer the entire land remain open space but would consider a compromise with developers because the cost to buy the land outright is too high.

"I can work with it either way," said Bankhead, 70. "We need to work toward leaving the whole area as a natural habitat, but the city has no way to find the kind of money it takes to purchase the property."

Bankhead said failing that, he would support some low-density housing.

"But it's in the city's best interest to keep as much open space as possible," he said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Who's on the ballot

Candidates for Fullerton City Council in Tuesday's election:

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City Council, two-year term (vote for one)

Ralph G. Baker Jr., Cal State Fullerton student

Chuck Munson, Certified public accountant

Shawn Nelson, Local business owner/attorney

Kerry H. Knapp, Consultant/engineer

Vance D. Blaisdell, Relocation consultant

Angela Chen Lindstrom, Project manager

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City Council, four-year term (vote for two)

Don Bankhead+, Council member

Jan M. Flory+, Council member

Leland Wilson, Small-business owner

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+ = Incumbent

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