The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to reject a lease between Whittier and a Santa Barbara-based oil company estimated to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties for the city.
The site in question – 1,280 acres in the hills – was acquired in 1994 with funds generated under 1992’s Proposition A, a measure passed by voters to preserve open space, public recreation areas and wildlife habitats.
“There was no intent to ever resurrect the oil uses of the property,” said Belinda Faustinos, an alternate to the California Coastal Commission, referring to plans to establish a park on the land. “We need to maintain the trust of our voters.”
Dozens of residents, environmentalists, politicians and community advocates were among 111 people signed up to testify before the board Tuesday.
The vast majority were opposed to the project.
“Oil drilling with Prop A funds would never be allowed in the Santa Monica Mountains,” Sierra Club spokeswoman Nidia Erceg said.
Others warned that if approved the project would set a precedent that would open the door for the exploitation of other potentially oil-rich land in Baldwin Hills and Montebello.
Supervisor Michael Antonovich also worried about the repercussions beyond Whittier.
“If you’re granted a deviation from Prop A … all the other agreements … would be violated,” Antonovich told a lawyer for Matrix Oil. “You’re creating case law that would have detrimental impacts countywide and statewide.”
But one conservation group, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, which originally filed one of several suits seeking to stop the project, announced an agreement in August to allow the project in exchange for royalties up to $11.25 million annually.
The group said it would use that money to buy and preserve other county land, a move that Whittier Mayor Bob Henderson said at the time would extend the benefits of Prop A to another generation.
Whittier and Matrix officials say the lease restricts drilling to a seven-acre site and that a third-party gatekeeper would assure that footprint would not be expanded. The agreement also prohibits high volume, high pressure hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking.”
But environmental consulting firm Sapphos Environmental — hired by the county’s Regional Park and Open Space District to assess the project – said the conditional use permit issued by Whittier allowed for up to 60 wells to be phased in at the city’s sole discretion.
The study concluded that air and water quality would suffer, a finding echoed by Whittier’s own Environmental Impact Report, according to county staffers.
“It’s inconsistent with the intended purpose of Proposition A,” Sapphos President Marie Campbell said of the project.
Matrix Oil representatives called the study misleading.
“The amount of misinformation surrounding this project is significant,” Joe Paquette of Matrix said.
In June, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant enjoined the project, citing the parties’ failure to get the county’s approval. That injunction expires on June 20, 2015, when the agreement governing the original purchase of the land expires.
Lawyers argued Tuesday about whether the county board had the standing to approve or oppose the agreement.
“Everything they’ve done shows they intend to move forward … without the board’s consent,” county attorney Larry Hafetz told the supervisors.
Jordan Porter, a lawyer for Matrix Oil, said county staffers approved the lease before it ever went out for bid and that the board’s role was restricted to reviewing the use of lease revenues.
Whittier and Matrix have argued that any approval rights held by the county will expire as early as this month and no later than June 20, 2015.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky disagreed.
“Basically what you’re arguing and what the city of Whittier is arguing … suggests that Prop A lasts only 20 years,” Yaroslavsky said. The funding may end, but open space designated under the proposition is intended to stay open in perpetuity, he argued. “In perpetuity is in perpetuity.”
The vote by the board also dictates that any revenues from the project, if it moves forward, be used only to further the objectives of Prop A and not for Whittier general fund purposes.
“The issue will not be decided here, it will be decided in court,” Supervisor Don Knabe said, adding that he was reluctantly voting against the project in an effort to bring the parties to the table to discuss alternatives.
“I like our chances, because I think we’re right,” Yaroslavsky said of the court battle to come. “It’s a fight. It’s a fight for every piece of parkland that has been purchased through Proposition A.”