July 14, 2008

Hilly Controversy

By Amanda Baumfeld

MONTEBELLO - The rugged and undeveloped landscape of the Montebello Hills contains a mixture of oil wells, overgrown vegetation and endangered birds.

It's one of the largest open spaces remaining in the San Gabriel Valley and has been the center of debate over development for decades.

To developers, the more than 480 acres of hillside land is an opportunity to build large homes for the affluent with a view that stretches across the valley.

To environmentalists, the land represents a paradise of trails and an opportunity to discover nature in its purest form.

The most recent controversy revolves around the Montebello Hills Specific Plan, a project that proposes to build 1,200 residential homes, a series of trails and a public park on the vast open space.

The project is proposed by Cook Hill Properties LLC, a development consultant for Plains Exploration & Production Co., which owns the property.

"We believe this is a balanced community plan and is a rare opportunity for the city to secure new housing opportunities," said Byron de Arakal, spokesman for Cook Hill. "It's a way to establish significant new revenue streams, and create a valuable open space preserve and public park in a single project."

An environmental impact report is under way and public input meetings with the community began last week.

Members of the "Save the Montebello Hills" task force have their own vision for the hills.

The task force wants to preserve the hills, in a natural way, but also preserve access for education, exercise and recreation, according to Margot Eiser, founder of task force.

They also say the land doesn't need to be developed.

"The birds and other creatures which make up the ecosystem are doing well and the oil company is making a lot of money some of which goes to the city," Eiser said. "Even if we cannot as yet get in to see them, we prefer the birds to any number of residential dwelling units."

The land is home to the gnatcatcher - an endangered species of bird - which requires two-thirds of the land to be devoted to a habitat for the bird.

Cook Hill Properties, working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has already begun a habitat restoration project.

"The project's objective is to enhance and create a viable, long- term habitat for the gnatcatcher population on the site," de Arakal said.

Under the federal Endangered Species Act, the habitat cannot be accessible to the public, de Arakal said.

Because of this, Cook Hill argues that the "Save the Montebello" task force should not be promoting a plan that includes public access throughout the site.

But Eiser says that just isn't so. Research has indicated that during the non-breeding season the birds are not bothered by humans walking on trails, according to Eiser. The breeding season typically begins in March and lasts 120 days, according to the Audubon Society.

Plans are also under way by Cook Hill to consolidate the 96 oil- producing wells covering the land. The wells will be located outside of the development footprint, de Arakal said. It is unclear how far away the wells will be from homes.

The oil well equipment is being placed underground and the "grasshopper" rigs will go away, de Arakal said.

The hills have been part of a redevelopment area since the 1970s. The previous owner, Chevron Corp., discovered the property was home to the gnatcatcher when officials began looking into developing the area in the early 1990s.

The city does not own the property, so ultimately its role in deciding what direction to take is limited.

But the proposed 1,200 homes represent approximately $725 million in new residential property value for the city, according to Cook Hill.

The new homes are expected to generate $6 million to $7million in property tax revenues, de Arakal said.

City Councilman Robert Urteaga is open to the idea of developing the hills and believes the council should look at ways to improve the city.

"One of the problems in Montebello is that a lot of people who grew up here, and love Montebello, move to Rowland Heights or Chino Hills," Urteaga said at an input meeting July 8. "We just don't have the housing to keep them.

"Montebello used to be known as the Beverly Hills of the East. My goal is to bring that back."

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