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Opposing sides on Montebello project find common ground: City Hall turmoil

Developers and environmentalists, at odds over housing proposed for the last unbuilt area, agree that little can be decided until City Hall drama calms down. Caught in the middle: gnatcatcher habitat.

September 14, 2009|Louis Sahagun

Developers and environmentalists at odds over a plan to transform Montebello's last stretch of undeveloped highlands into a $500-million housing project have found common ground in at least one area: the instability at Montebello City Hall.

At stake is the future of 488 acres of rugged open space in the Eastside suburb. Today, the land is an active oil field and refuge for the largest population of threatened California gnatcatchers in Los Angeles County.

But political turmoil at City Hall has complicated matters for both camps as they strive to strike a balance between stoking the local economy and protecting open space that features a rare swath of coastal sage scrub habitat.

Two Montebello City Council members -- both of whom favor the development -- are the targets of a bitter recall campaign related to a legal dispute over trash hauling rights. The other three council members are up for reelection in November. In addition, conflict of interest issues involving the housing project have arisen with several other key city officials.

"Until there is political stability in Montebello," said Byron de Arakal, a spokesman for the developer, Cook Hill Properties of Newport Beach, "they will have a difficult time moving forward and improving their city."

Linda Strong of the Sierra Club's Save the Montebello Hills Task Force agreed. "Montebello is a political mess," she said. "We're very concerned with the process as the city deals with the environmental impact report on this project."

The project has been under discussion by the city for four years. As the environmental impact report nears completion, it is unclear who will be in office to approve or reject it, with all five council members' seats in question.

The development plan calls for adding housing for 4,000 in a city struggling with aging sewers and roads, a stagnant economy and a dearth of parkland for its 62,000 residents.

It also calls for shaving nearly 100 feet off the top of a 540-foot hill and filling in land to create plateaus on which to build a 166-acre neighborhood with panoramic views of the San Gabriel Valley. Housing would range from 900-square-foot residences to 4,000-square-foot luxury homes.

The rest of the property would be used for public trails, oil production and a doughnut-shaped gnatcatcher habitat between the new homes and existing residences below. Once completed, the project would generate about $7 million in property tax revenue each year, according to a fiscal analysis paid for by the developer.

The developer, environmentalists and a city councilman have said that deliberations on such a significant project have been stymied by the City Hall turmoil.

The city attorney -- the city's fifth in as many years -- has recused himself from discussing the project because he lives within 500 feet of the Montebello Hills. On Wednesday, an interim city manager was installed to handle civic issues pending the retirement of the current city manager.

Opponents have questioned the chairman of the city Planning Commission over his work as a paid consultant for the San Gabriel Valley Water Co., which would supply the development with more than 800 acre-feet of water annually. Tom Calderon, the chairman, has denied any conflict of interest.

"Montebello City Hall right now is a train wreck," said Councilman William Molinari. "That's very troubling. This is not the appropriate way to handle a proposal of this magnitude."

Opponents are particularly concerned about the project's environmental effects.

A decade ago, there were about 35 pairs of California gnatcatchers in the Montebello Hills. Since then, the population has grown to about 76 pairs and the birds' range has expanded to the nearby Puente Hills, said Kimball Garrett, ornithology collections manager at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

Cook Hill officials said roughly half of the existing gnatcatchers could be lost during construction. "But we believe the population will recover nicely to 70 pairs or so," project manager Norm Witt said.

Sierra Club conservation coordinator Jennifer Robinson is not so sure.

"The Sierra Club has never had a problem with the ongoing oil production in Montebello Hills," Robinson said. "But we'd like to see that land remain open space with low-impact park opportunities: hiking, picnicking, flying kites."

Cook Hill officials said they had already compromised.

"We've squeezed the project down as far as we can," Witt said. "What we've designed is a very sensitive plan for the city and the habitat."

Strong, of the Save our Montebello Hills task force, disagreed.

"Montebello Hills may not be a great pristine wilderness, but it's the closest thing to one we have," she said. "So we must proceed with care because once they start grading, the hills this city was named after -- Montebello means beautiful hills in Italian -- will be gone forever.

"It sure would help," she added, "if Montebello City Hall would get better organized."

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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