Community Fights Plans to Develop Habitat of Rare Bird

Times Staff Writer

What one developer in Walnut calls brush clearance, the City Council calls the denuding of a hillside and the destruction of habitat for five pairs of California gnatcatchers, small birds that are on the endangered species list.

The city went to court last week, seeking a temporary injunction against the removal of any earth or vegetation from 551 acres that the developer hopes to turn into a 268-home planned community and an 18-hole golf course. What they got was something slightly less: a limit on the extent of the excavation and a promise of a February hearing to discuss the matter.

It's all part of an ongoing dispute over the fate of Walnut's last large tract of open space.

With tantalizingly low crime rates and a top-rated school system, the city of 30,000 describes itself as "a pleasant blend of living in a semirural country, a hometown atmosphere, urban conveniences and close proximity to metropolitan areas, deserts and beaches." It has made its reputation as a friend to the kind of master-planned housing projects that developer Standard Pacific wants to build on the sprawling hillside known as Walnut Hills, at the city's northwestern edge.

That the project sits adjacent to the BKK Landfill -- a Class I hazardous waste dump in neighboring West Covina that was closed in 1989 -- bothers Walnut City Councilman Tom King. That is reason enough, he has said, for the council to carefully consider the options before it decides whether to grant Standard Pacific the final permits it needs to build Walnut Hills.

King, an LAPD detective who oversaw the investigation that tracked former Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson to Minnesota, was elected to the council last year.

By then, Standard Pacific's Walnut Hills project had already been in the works for six years. Environmental impact and landfill impact reports had been prepared, maps drawn and conditional-use permits approved.

But the 2002 election of King and another councilman, Miles Nan, "changed the political environment on the council," according to Walnut City Manager Jeffrey C. Parker. "There were more council members that had a concern about the project's being approved."

A newly formed planning commission rejected the Walnut Hills development. It is on appeal to the City Council, which late last year asked for additional studies on whether additional environmental impact hearings were necessary. That could postpone the development for months.

Standard Pacific said the city was delaying the project purposely. In late December, it filed a petition in Superior Court demanding the right to finish the project without having to "comply with new conditions, obtain further discretionary approvals or revisit matters pertaining to the merit of this project."

A month later, after bulldozers arrived on the Walnut Hills property to begin clearing, the city sought the restraining order calling on Standard Pacific to stop work on the property.

One pair of gnatcatchers had been found living in the sage scrub on the property in 1998, according to a biological opinion document prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Later surveys found five pairs living on the property and five more pairs nearby. In August, Fish and Wildlife recommended that the developer "clear ... the project site from Aug. 31 to Feb. 15, which is outside the gnatcatcher breeding season."

Standard Pacific attorney Michael Shonafelt said the bulldozers had arrived to do just that. "We are clearing brush," he said, "as we are required to do by Fish and Wildlife."

King disagreed, saying the developers were "clearing out the habitat so they can go ahead with the project. And that's all they are doing. They are stripping it bare."

In legal documents, Standard Pacific said the timing was necessary because the tentative subdivision map for the project will expire in September. "The city is grasping at straws," it said, "having decided to use time as its most potent ally."

"The new City Council members have demonstrated vehement opposition to the project," said Michael C. Battaglia, director of forward planning and vice president of project development for Standard Pacific, in a legal document filed last week.

A judge prohibited Standard Pacific from excavating "three feet or more" on the property, but the fate of the overall development is still unresolved. City Manager Parker said the council "has not made any decisions."

At a City Council meeting last week, King introduced several speakers, all aimed, he said, at getting residents and members of the council to think about the consequences of their actions. Among the speakers was an environmental toxicologist, a pathologist and a woman who had lived near the BKK Landfill in West Covina and has since developed cancer.

The landfill cleanup and remediation plan was designed with no development on that hill, said Penny Newman, executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. "It could be OK," she said. "But do you want to gamble on that?"

The question of the health consequences of building near a landfill was on the minds of most who spoke at the council meeting. And an e-mail circulated around the city last week -- and distributed anonymously at the meeting -- included a "home buyer's alert" not to buy in Walnut because of health hazards.

On Friday, in a letter faxed by the city, Nan resigned, saying he thought he was "no longer able to fulfill the duties of the position to the best of my ability."

Nan did not return calls for comment, but sources close to the council said his resignation was related to the e-mail.

As the letter was faxed, four bulldozers pushed brush away from a steep hillside, far from where the gnatcatchers had been found. Biological monitors were nearby, in case any birds were detected.

None was found.

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