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Rowland Heights fears being annexed away

Deadline looms for the unincorporated community to protest Diamond Bar's attempt to claim part of it. Too bad a try at cityhood, which would have conferred more power, stalled this summer.

October 12, 2009|Ching-Ching Ni

For years Rowland Heights residents watched as neighboring cities nibbled away at the community's borders, annexing valuable commercial tax bases and eyeing its scenic open spaces.

But as part of unincorporated Los Angeles County, they had little power to fight back.

A group of residents, hoping to change that, recently launched a petition drive seeking cityhood for the San Gabriel Valley community of about 60,000. But their efforts stalled this summer after they failed to rally enough support.

Now organizers fear another defeat that could lead to an even bigger loss.

The city of Diamond Bar is in the final stages of annexing a hilltop neighborhood on the eastern edge of the San Gabriel Valley community known as Crestline. It includes about 150 homes but, perhaps more important, borders thousands of acres of open space that critics say is the real prize.

"Crestline is the steppingstone" for land owned by Aera Energy, said Henry Woo, a member of the Rowland Heights Community Coordinating Council, referring to the developer of a proposed 3,600-unit residential and commercial project that could be built next door. The Aera property abuts Crestline and is within Rowland Heights' southern boundary.

If the Aera property is annexed and its development approved, critics say, Rowland Heights would suffer the brunt of the project's traffic and environmental effects while reaping little economic benefit.

"They would not be able to do this to us if we were a city," said Robert Lewis, a member of Rowland Heights Advocates for Cityhood. "At least we would have a means of defense."

Rowland Heights residents have until Wednesday to file a written protest with the state commission that oversees annexation requests. At least 25% of the community's registered voters must sign a petition to force an election over Crestline's fate.

Soon after it incorporated in 1991, Diamond Bar attempted to annex Aera's 3,000 acres of open space. But Rowland Heights residents launched a petition drive that halted annexation plans.

Aera Energy, one of California's largest oil producers, eventually pitched its own development plans to the county. The local community again stood firm against the project, citing potential significant environmental effects.

Now critics worry that if Crestline is annexed by Diamond Bar, it would be easier for the city to take over the Aera property and clear the way for development. But Diamond Bar officials said the only reason they are pursuing Crestline is that it is a natural extension of their city.

"This is a completely developed neighborhood," said Greg Gubman, the city's community development director. "It's in our sphere of influence and has been for a number of years."

George Basye, vice president of Aera Energy, also dismissed any notion that the Crestline annexation proposal was tied to the developer's plans.

"That annexation's been talked about many years," Basye said. "It's a stretch to say they are related."

He did acknowledge, however, Aera's continuing goal of building roughly 3,600 residential units as part of a master planned community.

That does not preclude working with Diamond Bar, as noted on the developer's website: "Aera and Diamond Bar recently entered into a pre-annexation agreement to explore the possibility of bringing about two-thirds of Aera's 2,935-acre property into the city's boundaries. Annexation could offer Diamond Bar new homes, a sports park and a much-needed new revenue source -- at least $1 million a year, according to a preliminary study commissioned by the city."

Opponents in Rowland Heights -- exhausted and discouraged from two failed petition drives for cityhood -- worry about their ability to rally the community against the Crestline annexation.

On the other hand, organizers say the threat of losing even more land might be just what they need to reignite the cityhood drive.

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ching-ching.ni@latimes.com

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