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Industry Holding a Key to Wildlife Corridor

The city's undeveloped land could link a state park with open space -- or be site of a reservoir.

August 09, 2004|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

The city of Industry has amassed 5,500 acres of undeveloped land in the heart of a wildlife corridor that slices through a densely occupied part of Southern California -- and that has some environmentalists worried.

The city's holdings, entirely outside the municipal limits, run along rugged Tonner Canyon, which stretches southwest from the Pomona Freeway in Los Angeles County through the western tip of San Bernardino County to Brea in northern Orange County.

Industry officials say they have no immediate plans for the land, but are coy about long-range intentions, declining to say whether the city will pursue a long-established proposal to build a reservoir on the site.

"There could be a future water-reclamation project there," said Mayor David Perez, "[but] right now the land is for public use as open space."

The fate of the land concerns local environmentalists who have worked for two decades to preserve a 30-mile stretch of relatively undisturbed terrain from Whittier in Los Angeles County to Chino Hills State Park, which straddles Orange and San Bernardino counties. They hope to preserve a corridor that would link the state park with parcels of open space to the west to provide a roaming ground for coyotes, deer and other animals.

Some of that vacant land has been preserved with more than $100 million in state and private funds. The Puente-Chino Hills Wildlife Corridor includes nearly 4,000 acres that have been bought by public agencies on the west side of the corridor with fees collected at Whittier's Puente Hills Landfill.

But two large properties have not been formally set aside as open space. Environmentalists say most of both properties needs to be preserved for the wildlife corridor to be sustainable.

"These lands are in the heart of the corridor," said Belinda Faustinos, executive officer of the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, which funds preservation projects in the San Gabriel Valley. "It is hard to have significant development and still have a viable corridor."

One of the properties is a 3,000-acre parcel north of the Brea hills owned by Aera Energy of Bakersfield, which is planning a 3,600-home development. The developer has proposed preserving about 1,500 acres for open space, including 700 to extend the wildlife corridor through the development.

The other is Industry's vacant land along Tonner Canyon.

"Tonner Canyon is vital," said Claire Schlotterbeck, executive director of Hills for Everyone, a Brea-based conservation group. "If you bulldoze that canyon, you have not just disturbed a movement area, you have decimated an entire habitat."

Industry officials maintain they have no such plans. They say the city spent $22.5 million for its most recent purchase, a 525-acre tract east of the Orange Freeway, to prevent development that could block access to a larger property, the 2,423-acre Firestone Boy Scout Reservation, which the city bought in 2001. Farther north is the third piece of the city's holdings, the 2,575-acre Tres Hermanos Ranch, which the city bought in 1978.

The smallest parcel includes an oil field and pastureland. The Firestone property is used for camping by the city's youth programs and Boy Scouts.

"The land is being used for public good," Perez said. But the public good also means sustaining Industry's economic growth, he said.

"We are a very unique city," he said. "We have a small population, but we also have 85,000 people working here daily, and we have an obligation to those people too."

Perez said that in the late 1970s, the city commissioned a study to find out what resources Industry -- with a population of just 800 -- needed to sustain its manufacturing base.

"And all the consultants told us: We need water," the mayor said. "There just isn't enough of it to go around."

After Industry bought the Boy Scout property in 2001, environmental groups sued to block the deal, alleging among other things that officials had not filed documents detailing environmental effects of building a reservoir. The courts ruled in the city's favor, concluding that officials need not file those reports until its plans are formally submitted to planning authorities.

Diamond Bar and Chino Hills, which neighbor Tonner Canyon, see a reservoir development as an opportunity to build a major road that would run along the eastern edge of the purported reservoir and divert some Inland Empire commuters away from the two cities.

"We are hoping to work with the city of Industry," said Chino Hills Mayor Gary G. Larson. Although Industry officials have not said whether they favor such a plan, the idea of realigning Tonner Canyon Road and turning it into a major artery has been suggested before.

Officials from Brea, which would receive much of the traffic, are not thrilled and have challenged Industry's latest purchase.

"Our concern is: What is their real plan for the area?" said Charlie View, Brea's development services director.

With so many watching their plans so carefully, Industry officials are careful with their words.

"There are some sensitive points," Perez said. "Whatever happens in the future is going to have to be a collaborative effort between Industry, and Brea and other neighboring cities. We are willing to work something out, but people have to be willing to compromise."

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