Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Montebello Hills

A corporation is poised to transform the Montebello Hills into housing and park space.  Local residents are at odds with the plan.  The 497-acre site contains active oil fields and is privately owned by the Plains Exploration and Production Company (PXP).

(Click image to enlarge)

Expansive swaths of southern California oil-producing lands by 1997 had become more valuable as housing tracts than for their oil output.  Fullerton, Yorba Linda, Brea, La Habra, and Huntington Beach were among the cities with new communities and neighborhoods born out of converted land.  The "Pinehurst" luxury home development along a Fullerton ridge co-exists with oil pumps.

PXP and Cook Hill Properties

PXP sought the same for "monetizing the value of existing PXP surface land holdings in southern California," of its holdings in Montebello (which the company purchased from Chevron in 1997) as well as in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties.  In 2006 Cook Hill Properties was brought in as a real estate consultant, and they are a 15% participant in the venture.

Lodwrick Cook heads Cook Hill Properties, and he is no stranger to the oil industry.  His lengthy career with Atlantic Richfield Company culminated with serving as chairman and CEO from 1986-1995.

Opposing forces from the city express their views online at http://www.saveourmontebellohills.com/.  Another opponent writes about the area's history as well as his opinions through LaMercedMontebello.com.

Cook Hill maintains a well-organized, information-rich website called MontebelloHills.com that include persuasive videos with testimonials by city residents.  The company maintains a physical presence on a high-profile street corner with a storefront purposed as an information center.  I attempted to visit the place, but it was closed on Saturday, May 5th, even though it was supposed to be open.  The last time I set foot in this store was several years ago when it was an El Pollo Loco Restaurant.

The following photographs I took so I would not waste my trip to this nicely redeveloped intersection of Whittier and Montebello Boulevards.

No one else was trying to visit this Center on a Saturday afternoon except me

Window shopping, seeking to get 'Family Friendly Neighborhoods' and 'Life Outdoors'
Their website offers this plan:  1,200 unattached and attached homes, winding trails, and parks, with two-thirds (314 acres) set aside permanently as open space (this open space encompassing 260 acres of a habitat reserve to protect the California Coastal Sage Scrub and a bird called the California gnatcatcher.)

View northward on Montebello Boulevard

Cook Hill's ongoing restoration of the ecosystem:  growing the California Coastal Sage Scrub to permit the California gnatcatcher to survive

Challengers question whether the new housing will provide enough revenue to support city services.  Other issues cited:  disturbance to the ecosystem; impact of removing six million cubic feet of dirt; loss of the last remaining open space; health risks from living above and next to an active oil field; increased traffic; increased burden on school and public safety systems; and the general disturbance to the "flatlands" of the La Merced neighborhood.

Last Remaining Open Space

In 1959, 310 homes were built on Lincoln Avenue, northward onto San Gabriel Boulevard.  In 1961, Brighton Hills East were sold as view homes at Lincoln Avenue near Wilcox.  In 1962, homes were being offered in the Sun Ray Estates tract on La Merced off of Lincoln Avenue - a selling point for this tract was that each home sat on a terraced view lot on "gentle sloping hills."

Throughout 1963 and 1964, the Brighton Hills Skyline tract at Wilcox and Westmoreland offered view homes.

Twelve acres at Avenida de la Merced and 4th Street yielded 51 new houses about 1973 after a three-year delay.  North Montebello Boulevard became a new major thoroughfare climbing through the hills and had recently been completed.  The home-builder of this tract was the Baldwin Company of Irvine, and the company would build more tract housing units in the upcoming years.

The approval of the 45 acre hillside condominium project came through in 1973 with 416 residential units slated.  This was situated near Schurr High School, the freeway to the north, Brighton Hills on the east and Westmoreland Drive on the south.

West of Montebello Boulevard was developing, too.  1974 and 1975 were the years when the Baldwin Company built the Racquet Mountain Tennis and Swim Club Homes north of Lincoln Avenue, completing phases I and II.  In 1975, a townhouse development by W&B Builders called Mountain View Terraces became situated north of the Pomona Freeway near Paramount Boulevard and Arroyo Drive.

A huge single-family home development in 1977 was Strathmore Montebello by W&B Builders in steeper parts of the Montebello Hills.  Access to these 216 homes were reached from North Montebello Boulevard into cross streets like Jefferson and Liberty.  With construction completed, critics found the homes less than innovative and rather small in their lot sizes.  Arguments were grounded on aesthetics.

Below are views of Strathmore, with the background skyline defined by the Monterey Park dump which abuts these homes:

Strathmore is separated from the active oil field by North Montebello Boulevard

If Cook Hill Properties and PXP gain approval to build their land, five zones in the Montebello Hills will be for homes, and a community park will be established in a sixth zone.  The far eastern side of the hills is supposed to remain active with oil wells, away from the housing tracts.  This is close to the annex parking lot across from the Macy's at the Montebello Town Centre, by Plaza Drive:

Inside Gate #4

Update -  An important comment below from Yvonne Watson, a Montebello resident and a strong voice against the proposed plans for the Hill:


In addition to the many local residents who oppose this project, it is also opposed by the Sierra Club. http://angeles.sierraclub.org/environmental/campaignslac_montebellohillstf.asp

The website cited in this blog, www.saveourmontebellohills.com, is maintained by the Save the Montebello Hills Task Force of the Sierra Club/Angeles Chapter.

For the sake of clarity, the City of Montebello is not "poised to transform the Montebello Hills" into anything. The official name of the proposed housing project is the Montebello Hills Specific Plan (MHSP). By state law, the MHSP is subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the project is still undergoing environmental review.

There are many, serious environmental and public health issues associated with this proposed project which must be addressed.

The Final Environmental Impact Review for this project has not been certified nor approved by the City Council.

In the meantime, PXP was recently charged with 8 misdemeanor counts for violating state water pollution laws stemming from a 2010 oil spill that reached the Rio Hondo River from PXP's Montebello oil field. The District Attorney's office took a second look at the 2010 spill after members of the Save the Montebello Hills Task Force alerted the media (EGP News and the Los Angeles Times) to another spill in 2011. Official documents obtained by the Task Force and presented to the media stated that the 2010 spill was not reported by PXP as required by law, but was instead reported by a vector control officer inspecting the river for mosquitoes.

For more information, see:
EGP News
"Past PXP Spill Went Unreported For Weeks, Also Being Investigated"

The latest court date for this case was May 3, 2012 at the East Los Angeles Courthouse. A fine of $75,000 was mentioned but this amount still needs to be finalized in writing.

Yvonne Watson
Chief Researcher
Save the Montebello Hills Task Force, Sierra Club/Angeles Chapter
(I am also a long time resident of Montebello.)