California Tries to Stop Mountain Oil Leases

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – A state agency sued the city of Whittier to try to stop it from leasing 600 acres of recreational land in the Santa Monica Mountains for oil drilling.
     The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency, sued Whittier in Superior Court. It wants Whittier barred from leasing the land for oil drilling, and declaratory judgment that the city is violating Proposition A, which allocated $540 million of public money, partly to buy up parkland and open spaces.
     “In 1992, the voters of Los Angeles County passed Proposition A,” the complaint states. “Proposition A allocated $40 million of benefit assessment funds to the Conservancy, and the Conservancy agreed to use $7 million of its allocation to facilitate the acquisition of public open space in the City of Whittier.
     “In 1994, the Conservancy granted $7 million to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) in a transaction that would allow the City of Whittier (city) to purchase 960 acres of open space from [nonparty] Chevron. Chevron had been producing oil from the property, and all parties intended that the city hold the property as open space for habitat conservation and public recreation. To that end, a declaration and easement of restricted use was recorded specifically providing that the city must keep 600 acres of the property in a natural, undeveloped open space condition, and prevent any use of the area that would impair its conservation value. The city now seeks to lease the land to drill for oil, which is an improper use of the Conservancy’s grant of bond funds.”
     The state says the land is an “important wildlife habitat that connects the Chino Hills and the Santa Ana Mountains,” and is meant for hiking, biking, horseback riding, habitat preservation and oil clean-up.
     But in the fall of 2008 Whittier, which is about 12 miles southeast of Los Angeles, negotiated a deal with Matrix Oil and Clayton Williams Energy to drill for oil on the land. California the city needs approval from the Los Angeles County Regional Park and Open Space District, and the MRCA to change use of Proposition A-funded land.
     “Likewise, the Conservancy must consent before a change in use is allowable. The oil drilling will impair the public’s right to the unimpaired open space, habitat protection and recreation uses of the property, whereas the city will reap its own financial benefit,” the complaint states.
     The state says the city deleted the requirement for district approval from its contracts with the oil companies, and “adopted a resolution purporting to remove the declaration/easement deed restriction from the property, so as to enable the oil drilling to proceed on the property.”
     Attorney General of California Kamala Harris and her assistants John Saurenman and Christina Bull Arndt filed the complaint.
     Named as real parties in interest are the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, Los Angeles County Regional Park and Open Space District, Puente Hills Landfill Native Habitat Preservation Authority, Matrix Oil Corp., and Clayton Williams Energy.
     The City of Whittier did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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