A sign at a home next to Whittier's nature preserve protests the oil… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
The city of Whittier and a Santa Barbara oil company prompted outrage Thursday as they began clearing trees and brush from a nature preserve that was bought with Los Angeles County tax dollars to protect it from development.
Whittier purchased the land and its mineral rights 19 years ago with $9.3 million in county Proposition A funds, which are designated for conservation purposes only. But the city later reversed course, learning that oil deposits could bring the city up to $100 million a year in royalties — nearly double its $55-million budget.
The county and environmental groups contend that extracting oil is a blatant abuse of Proposition A money intended to preserve the land in eastern Los Angeles County's hill country. Conservationists also worry that jurisdictions statewide may attempt to follow Whittier's example, undermining the intent of propositions designed to use tax dollars to preserve open space.
"It's outrageous that public funds meant for park creation were used to purchase some of Los Angeles County's last pristine open space not for environmental preservation but for oil drilling," county Supervisor Gloria Molina said. "That's exactly the opposite of what voters had in mind when they passed Proposition A in 1992."
But officials in the city of 90,000 people believe that they are legally entitled to the oil because the city retained the mineral rights, even if the land was purchased with county bond money. "The bond is totally silent about mineral rights — we own them and the county controls the surface rights," Mayor Pro Tem Bob Henderson said.
When Whittier bought the rare swath of oak forests and coastal scrub from Chevron Oil in 1994, oil was selling for about $12 a barrel. In 2008, when oil prices rose toward $100 a barrel, the City Council had a change of heart and voted unanimously to lease about three-fourths of the 1,600-acre preserve to Matrix Oil Co. of Santa Barbara.
If all goes according to the city's plan, the project will have a footprint of seven acres of that leased parcel, Henderson said.
"We're still protecting the birds and bees out there," he said. "Deer still run around and little kids are out there for science education."
A handful of Molina's staff members went to the preserve Thursday to monitor the operation but were "politely escorted by rangers from the site, and they weren't too happy about that," Henderson said.
Four lawsuits have been filed to stop the plan, including one by the county. But motions for preliminary injunctions were taken off the court calendar recently after the defendants succeeded in disqualifying presiding Judge Richard Fruin Jr.
Lawyers for the county and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority won a temporary restraining order in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Thursday allowing the removal of vegetation but no digging.
The county contends that if the courts allow the oil to be taken, county taxpayers and not the city of Whittier should reap the rewards, with the money going to acquire lands for public use elsewhere in the county, said Scott Kuhn, who represented the Board of Supervisors and the Regional Park and Open Space District.
A hearing in the case has been scheduled for Feb. 21.