New Road Poor Trade for Housing Tract, Puente Hills Residents Fear

Times Staff Writer

It shapes up as a trade-off: A developer will build a $7.5-million road project in exchange for county permission to put hundreds of houses on a pristine ridge line in the Puente Hills.

Realigning and widening Fullerton Road will curtail congestion on the windy, two-lane arterial, county officials say.

But nearby residents, many drawn to the area by the promise of peace and privacy, say building 744 new houses on the rolling ridges north and east of La Habra Heights will spoil the country setting. They also warn that an improved, easier-to-travel Fullerton Road will simply bring more development, and that in a few years the highway will be just as unsafe and congested as it is now.

The county Regional Planning Commission on Monday will consider the proposed housing development, a 572-acre project just east of Fullerton Road that could have an impact on half a dozen communities north and south of the Puente Hills.

Several commission members, as well as Supervisor Peter F. Schabarum, whose 1st District includes the Puente Hills, have said approval of the development must be tied to a commitment from the builder, Walnut-based Shea Homes, to help widen and realign Fullerton Road. Schabarum said recently that improving Fullerton Road is the best--and most immediate--way to relieve traffic congestion in the hills.

Alternative Routes

Roads such as Fullerton, Colima and Hacienda have become popular alternatives among freeway-weary commuters traveling between the San Gabriel Valley and southeast Los Angeles County. With the increase in motorists have come complaints from hilltop residents about noise, pollution and unsafe roads.

But the county says it cannot afford major highway projects such as the realignment of Fullerton Road, so in recent years new roads have been financed primarily by private developers.

Shea Homes, which did not return phone calls from The Times, has already said it will pay for the realignment of Fullerton Road through its proposed development--beginning at the Rowland Heights Water Co.'s big storage tanks on the north and arcing south across the ridge line. In recent weeks, Shea Homes also agreed to pick up much of the cost of extending Fullerton Road from the southern edge of its project into La Habra Heights; there it will merge with the current Fullerton Road at Bethel Baptist Church.

County officials estimate that the entire four-mile realignment will cost about $7.5 million, with Shea paying 75% to 80% of it.

If built, the new Fullerton Road would be four lanes from the Pomona Freeway (California 60) on the north to Whittier Boulevard on the south, except for a half-mile stretch in La Habra Heights from Bethel Baptist Church south to the city limits.

Ernest A. Eggers, the La Habra Heights city engineer and a planner with Willdan Associates, said the city and the county have reached an agreement to widen that stretch of Fullerton Road once the realignment is under way. "Otherwise," Eggers said, "you would have four lanes of traffic narrowing to two, creating one major bottleneck."

A wider, realigned Fullerton Road, Schabarum said, "would go a long way to solving a lot of problems." Speaking to about 300 people who turned out in Rowland Heights several weeks ago to talk about the Shea project, he added, "It is the logical source of relief. . . ."

But residents in the area say the trade-off is too costly. They warn that approval of the Shea project could trigger a new wave of hillside development in an area where horse trails, one-acre lots and the expression "elbow room" are commonplace.

Wildlife biologists also oppose the project because, they say, it will endanger migration routes of deer and other animals and threaten several dense and extensive stands of rare California walnut trees.

Opposition is particularly intense in Rowland Heights, where homeowners have battled Shea since the builder received an option from Shell Oil Co. to buy the property in 1981.

Originally, Shea wanted to build 1,500 homes on the site. But the company's latest proposal calls for 744 homes, most of them densely clustered along the ridge line and clearly visible from both sides of the hill. Shea also wants to develop a 15-acre shopping center on the property at the base of the hills on the Rowland Heights side. It would be built about where the new Fullerton Road would begin, across from the Rowland Heights Water Co.'s storage tanks.

The Regional Planning Commission will hold its second hearing on the project Monday and possibly take a vote on whether to approve it. The meeting is at 9 a.m. in Room 150 of the Hall of Records, 320 W. Temple St., Los Angeles.

If the commission votes in favor of the project, it goes to the Board of Supervisors for final approval.

'Comfortable with Project'

The Planning Commission staff favors the development as proposed, county planner Don Culbertson said in an interview last week. The exact number of homes to be built may change slightly, he said, but "generally we're comfortable with the project and its density."

Most residents in the area, even the project's loudest critics, concede that houses, ranging in price from $130,000 to $300,000 and up, will soon dot the grassy slopes. So efforts in recent months have focused on reducing the project's density.

Shea's plan is to build on slightly more than a third of the 572 acres, leaving the rest of the property in its natural state. Where building will occur, opponents say, the lot sizes--some as small as an eighth of an acre--will not be compatible with surrounding communities.

Neighboring La Habra Heights, for example, requires a minimum lot size of one acre. And the area of Rowland Heights that would abut the Shea development also has lots of at least an acre.

'Rows of Boxes'

"We came here because of the country atmosphere," said Peggy Mullenaux, who moved with her husband from an apartment in Downey to Rowland Heights in 1959. They have lived in the town's Native Farms area ever since, raising five children. "Now they want to build rows of boxes on the hills. It's sad. . . ."

What angers many the most is that the Rowland Heights General Plan calls for one- to five-acre lots in the hills. The plan was adopted in 1981 by the Board of Supervisors, but the county Planning Commission last fall recommended allowing smaller plots. That action drew harsh criticism, but Schabarum defended it, saying, "Nothing is sacrosanct in a general plan. It is a merely a blueprint or guide."

At a public meeting several weeks ago, many residents said they would support the Shea development if lot sizes were an acre or bigger. But Shea executive Frank Sims said the higher density was necessary to pay for sewer lines, storm drains and roads required by the county.

"Without sewers and roads, I'm not sure we could sell many houses," Sims told the large and often hostile crowd at a high school auditorium. Many in the audience carried signs; some read, "Save Our Wildlife" and "Overcrowding Is Not Healthy for Flowers and Other Living Things."

The loudest applause came when Rowland Heights resident Rose Marie Turner accused Schabarum of "making us sacrificial lambs by trading us for the roads."

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