A Vision of Luxury Homes for Old Dump
Jake Amar, environmental systems manager for the BKK Corp. landfill, guided his white van along a dirt road that winds around the base of two mountains of trash.
One day, Amar said, the terraced pyramids amid the San Jose Hills will be transformed. Instead of dirt-covered garbage, grassy knolls will form the center of two proposed multimillion-dollar developments in West Covina and Walnut.
The BKK plan calls for luxury homes, office buildings, industrial facilities, equestrian trails, a low-rise hotel and a championship golf course to ring a 1,200-acre landscape whose garbage and toxic-waste foundations will be hidden.
“We feel it’s very, very safe,” Amar said of the dump’s proximity to the two separate but related developments, one in southern West Covina, the other in western Walnut.
As Amar spoke, front-end loaders buried trash tumbling from garbage trucks at the 583-acre landfill, the county’s second largest, which is scheduled to close in 1995.
“The logical thing to do,” BKK Corp. President Kenneth Kazarian said, "(is) to develop the land.”
Although a number of closed landfills in the nation have been made into facilities such as golf courses, Kazarian described his company’s efforts to reclaim land around a toxic dump as pioneering, in part because of the expensive precautions being undertaken.
But, reflective of the dump’s controversial role for three decades, not everyone agrees that the latest proposals are either logical or innovative. And if recent public meetings are an indication, the debate will probably continue for months and years as officials rule on the plans.
Besides local agencies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Health Services, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board will review aspects of the development plans as they relate to the landfill.
“That site has a real serious potential to pollute longer than my lifetime and your lifetime,” said George Tracy, head of West Covina’s Waste Management and Environmental Quality Commission.
During the early 1980s, 103 acres of the landfill served as the only toxic-waste dump between Santa Barbara and the Mexican border. Some 3.4 million tons of such waste--everything from batches of bad vodka to cyanide--was dumped.
In 1984, not long after gases seeped into nearby houses and forced 21 families to evacuate, the hazardous-waste section of the landfill was closed in the wake of public and governmental pressure. A month before, the EPA had rated the site as one of the nation’s most dangerous toxic dumps, filled with a spongy soup of cancer-causing chemicals.
In light of this, Tracy’s city commission has repeatedly urged the City Council to act with caution on the development proposal for West Covina that has been devised by Newport Beach-based Davis Developments, which is working with BKK.
Nonetheless, the City Council last Monday gave its unanimous consent to include the BKK land as part of a West Covina redevelopment plan. A 2.3 million-square-foot commercial development is proposed for BKK land northwest of where trash is dumped. In an earlier step last month, the council approved an environmental impact report.
“It’s going to be a tremendous project,” West Covina Mayor William Tarozzi said. He added that he supports the development because various experts have assured him of its safety.
Alan Sorsher, an associate waste management engineer with the state Department of Health Services, said a thick earthen cover has been installed over the dump’s toxic section. Readings from air, soil and water monitoring devices do not indicate immediate public health hazards, he said.
Despite such assurances, Walnut officials and residents have responded with less enthusiasm to the BKK-backed proposal for the untouched hills and ravines there.
Maurice Cofer, past president of the Gartel Fuerte Homeowners Assn., complains about “the raping of the hills.” His view is shared, he said, by seven homeowners groups whose opposition is based on environmental and growth concerns.
A BKK subsidiary, Walnut Land Co., in partnership with Newport Beach-based William Lyon Co., has proposed a luxury housing tract, a low-rise hotel, a golf course and a 9.5-acre commercial center. This would be designed, BKK officials say, to connect with the West Covina development, although there would be much open space between them.
Plans call for nearly a half-mile buffer zone separating housing from the landfill itself. The houses would be 2,000 to 3,000 square feet in size and sell for upward of $300,000.
Walnut Mayor Bertha (Bert) Ashley said the City Council will not approve the plans unless they are drastically scaled down. She said developers want permission to build 695 houses on 551 acres, a ratio that far exceeds the zoning allowed in the hilly area.
Kazarian said those who criticize BKK and its development plans fail to appreciate his company’s willingness to compromise.
He said BKK agreed to close the non-hazardous section of the landfill 10 years earlier than planned, at a loss of millions of dollars. If the land goes undeveloped, he said, Walnut and West Covina would lose money too.
“It’s not just our company with vision,” Kazarian said, citing West Covina officials’ support for BKK’s plans.
Money is a key to that support, the officials say. BKK is West Covina’s largest generator of business tax revenue, accounting for $3 million of the $44 million in total city revenues projected for the coming year. City officials say they are worried about how they will replace the dump when it closes.
“We’re trying to take something that could have been just a vacant piece of ground . . . and make it into an economically viable piece of land,” said Michael Miller, West Covina’s community services director.
An office and light industrial development, Miller said, could provide jobs and supplement the loss of BKK revenue.
But West Covina resident Jean Arneson, a leading foe of BKK, said the emphasis on dollars represents misplaced priorities. “I’m worried that our council is concentrating on the money to be made from redeveloping BKK land and is not concerned about the environment,” she said. “I’d like to see it all left as an open, green space.”
More than anything else, Arneson said, she is worried about what is buried at the dump. “We’re leaving a legacy of a trash-making generation,” she said. “What a legacy for the city that labels itself as the ‘City of Beautiful Homes.’ ”
This sentiment was expressed often in the early 1980s, when hundreds of residents jammed the council chambers to decry “Waste Covina.” Four council members, accused of granting accommodations to BKK, had to fight off a recall movement.
Since those days, officials of Torrance-based BKK say they have spent $38 million in sophisticated improvements at the dump. “We haven’t been a popular neighbor,” Kazarian said, “but we’ve done our best to not be a bad neighbor.”
Some of the company’s harshest critics agree that the situation is vastly improved. “Things once were very bad with BKK. Things are now better,” said longtime BKK critic Nancy E. Adin, who lives less than a quarter-mile from the landfill’s toxic portion.
In 1986, Adin shared a $43-million out-of-court settlement with more than 500 other neighbors of the dump. The neighbors, who each received between $25,000 and $300,000, had sued the company, its insurance companies and the developers of subdivisions near the dump over alleged health and safety problems related to the landfill.
Adin, a chemistry teacher at Cal State Los Angeles and Cal State Fullerton, says she is taking a cautious approach toward the development proposals. “It could be a tremendous disaster or it could be nothing,” she said.