California’s latest budget has been the source of outrage for a lot of big reasons. The $125 billion general fund busts spending records. It’s built upon the backs of taxpayers, who will pay higher gas taxes and vehicle-license fees to fund all the new priorities. The budget includes some controversial “trailer” bills that gut the taxpayer-friendly Board of Equalization and put a thumb on the scales of an Orange County recall election.
But there’s one particular little outrage that speaks volumes about what’s wrong in Sacramento. It involves a long-simmering local dispute over 510 acres of land in Fullerton known as West Coyote Hills. The former site of oil production, this vast tract of open space in congested north Orange County has been slated for a mixed-use project that strikes an ideal compromise.
Under the city plan, around 55 percent of the land would be set aside for trails and open space, with the remaining portion developed into 760 much-needed houses and some related commercial development. The costs would largely be borne by the Chevron-owned developer. The foundation of the current plan was adopted 40 years ago, but environmental groups have battled relentlessly to set aside all of the land as a preserve.
There’s been a long a tempestuous history over those decades, which is par for the course with any proposed development in California. There was a 2012 referendum on the city’s plan, along with the expected lawsuits and local battles. It’s pointless to rehash the detailed history, but suffice it to say that no-growthers have many tools to stop development in this state.
The overall result can be seen on the front pages: Median home prices in the county are approaching $700,000. There’s a similar housing crunch in all of California’s major metro areas. It’s all about supply and demand. State and local governments, prodded by environmental groups, make it nearly impossible to add significantly to the housing supply.
The state budget includes $15 million to acquire the Fullerton property. Two bills — one sponsored by Fullerton’s Democratic Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, and the other from Democratic Sen. Josh Newman — are making their way through the Legislature. Quirk-Silva’s bill would ensure the $15 million is spent on the West Coyote Hills Open Space Project, and Newman’s would include this project as part of a state environmental conservancy.
Quirk-Silva issued a statement saying the state funds would “be used for the purchase of the remainder of the 510-acre West Coyote Hills project site.” Of course, that sum won’t be enough to purchase a property that has reportedly been valued at $145 million, but the goal is to buy it parcel by parcel and ultimately conserve all the land.
The purchase has been in the works for a long time, but it doesn’t hurt, from the Democratic perspective, to tout this preservation project in a legislative district that has gained statewide attention given that Newman is subject to a recall because of his support of the gas-tax increase. If Newman loses the recall, that would cost the state’s Democrats their supermajority in the state Senate.
Chevron had agreed to a deal with the city and preservation groups that gives them time to purchase different parcels to set aside as open space. The state funds might help acquire one or two of those parcels right away. Two state parks bonds will be on the 2018 ballot and will include some funding for West Coyote Hills, but the money still will fall short of the goal.
The Newman bill also gives the state power to acquire the remaining property by force: “The conservancy may acquire land through eminent domain subject to applicable conditions for just compensation established under the California and United States Constitutions and other relevant statutes,” according to the language in Senate Bill 714.
It also shifts much decision-making power to the state government. “The state is continuing to remove local control over these sorts of issues,” Fullerton Mayor Bruce Whitaker told me. “These things are best left to the locals.”
So instead of a privately funded project that respects property rights and provides much-needed housing, Orange County residents will end up with a largely taxpayer-funded project that abuses those rights and adds to the housing shortage. Instead of soon seeing trails and a nature center, we’re likely to see the property remain fenced off for the foreseeable future. And if things go awry, we won’t have local officials to hold accountable.
Quirk-Silva argues that the citizens of north Orange County don’t have a fair share of parks. It’s certainly true that residents of densely populated north county have less nearby open space than those living in suburban south county. But it would be better to let the current project move forward with a balanced approach of parkland and home construction than this monstrosity. Unfortunately, “balance” isn’t something one gets from Sacramento these days.
Image by Lynn Y