It was never a secret. Chevron officials have planned for more than 30 years to develop the rolling Coyote Hills on the northern edge of Fullerton -- once the site of bountiful oil wells -- and build hundreds of new homes.
Maybe the city's 126,000 residents forgot or figured it would never happen, hoping their once-rural town could cling to its last major stretch of open land even as homes sprung up all around.
But it soon might.
Pacific Coast Homes, a subsidiary of ChevronTexaco, is proposing to build 760 homes in the hills, a project that critics say would wipe out the 510 remaining acres of Coyote Hills and put a threatened bird and a native plant in harm's way.
At issue is whether the homes will affect wildlife and whether the city has the roads to handle the traffic, the schools to accommodate growth and the resolve to override those who believe the hills should be left alone.
"The city of Fullerton is at a critical turning point," said Suzette Montgomery of the Save Coyote Hills community group. "This is the last chance to secure for future generations the open space they deserve."
Now, after more than 30 years, the project is nearing final approval. A draft environmental report should be completed this summer. That report -- along with changes to the specific plan detailing the number of houses and other elements -- will go to the City Council for a vote later this year.
To that end, the controversy is gaining steam. The debate over open space dominated the recent election. Chevron officials have distributed newsletters and set up information booths at the local farmers market. And about 450 residents turned out this week for a city-sponsored town hall meeting. Even the schoolchildren are weighing in.
At this week's four-hour community meeting, representatives from Chevron, the city and Save Coyote Hills laid out their positions.
"I realize there's a high level of concern, and I don't want it based on misinformation," said Don Means, vice president of Chevron Land and Development Co.
Chevron's previous plan called for 1,128 residences spread out over 360 acres, but it was scaled back to 760 homes over 260 acres. The revision also includes a fire station and possibly a park or school, eight miles of new trails, five vista points and a nature center.
"This is a balanced approach to how to develop a piece of property," Means said.
The project, Means said, will generate $4 million in school fees and transform an area that is closed to the public into usable open space for hiking, biking and horseback riding.
Many of the changes have been forced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which designated coastal sage scrub as a critical habitat of the California gnatcatcher, a threatened species. Biologists have identified 48 pairs of gnatcatchers in the Coyote Hills and have limited Chevron's development rights.
But members of Save Coyote Hills, an organization seeking to preserve remaining open space, said Chevron's efforts fall short.
"It's a dwindling natural resource that's going to go away altogether," said Angela Lindstrom, a member of the group.
Residents are wary of more development. More than 2,800 new homes have been approved or built in recent years. One of the latest developments is Amerige Heights, 1,450 housing units just south of Coyote Hills.
Nearby homeowners said they're already noticing the effects. Alisa Luna, 46, said she drives a different route in the morning to take her children to school to avoid busy streets such as Malvern Avenue.
To understand the level of concern, look no further than Randa Schmalfeld's sixth-grade class at Laguna Road School.
After hearing presentations from Chevron and Save Coyote Hills officials, the children took a vote and decided they couldn't support the development. Each wrote a persuasive essay and many went home and talked to their parents. Four of them -- Kelsey Heath, 11; Taylor Luna, 10; Katie Haines, 11; and Miguel Alvarez, 12 -- felt so strongly they brought their parents to this week's community meeting and spoke.
"Because I'm a kid, people usually don't listen to me, but I wanted them to," Katie said. "I want to save Coyote Hills. I want to go to more meetings. And I'm thinking about donating about $20."
Katie said she is worried about overcrowded classrooms and unsafe streets. Beyond that, she's just like the old-timers who remember Fullerton back before everybody moved in: She likes looking at the hills. "It makes you feel like you're not just in a busy city, but you're in the country."