Two of the most powerful preservation groups in the state settled their lawsuits with Whittier, potentially opening up a 1,280-acre nature preserve bought with taxpayer dollars to oil drilling for the next 25 years, the city reported Thursday.
The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority agreed to accept $650,000 in attorneys fees as well as a portion of the city’s oil revenues, up to $11.25 million a year or about $280 million for the life of the project. The city could realize $150 million a year for 10 years or $1.5 billion, making the MRCA share about 7 percent to 11 percent.
The parent agency, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, also dropped its lawsuit but did not receive a cash settlement, said Whittier City Manager Jeff Collier. The SMMC was represented by state Attorney General Kamala Harris.
However, Whittier failed to come to terms with the other plaintiff, Los Angeles County, which controls lands purchased with monies raised by the 1992 county measure Proposition A. The city used $9.3 million in Prop. A monies it received from the Santa Monica-based MRCA to buy a portion of the Whittier Hills, vowing to preserve it as open space in perpetuity. In 2011, the city approved an oil and gas exploration project on a 7-acre piece of land in the preserve located near the Friendly Hills neighborhood.
In June, a judge ruled the city and its partners, Matrix Oil and Clayton Williams Energy, Inc., violated the public trust by drilling on land that was supposed to be for open space and wildlife habitat. He ordered all equipment off the preserve and said the county must sign off on the project if it were to proceed.
Joseph Edmiston, executive director of both the SMMC and the MRCA, said in an interview Thursday that his small group could no longer fight Big Oil and decided taking the deal would help all the parks under his care.
Even though MRCA won the case in Superior Court, Edmiston, the guru of environmental protection and parks development in the county for several decades, said he feared losing in an appeal. He said recent MRCA and SMMC losses in appellate courts involving cases in Malibu cost the agencies hundreds of thousands in attorneys fees.
“Our record from the court of appeal has not been good,” he said.
Also, Edmiston said the $11.25 million a year nearly doubles the MRCA’s maintenance budget for the 69,000 acres of land and 114 recreational facilities it manages throughout the county. He said the oil money will help keep the toilets clean and the parks supervised for visitors who use MRCA-managed parks throughout the county.
L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who has fought the Whittier oil project, said she was shocked to learn Edmiston and his board had agreed to the settlement.
“I feel betrayed by a leader we have entrusted for decades to preserve and conserve open space,” Molina said. “I’m troubled by the rationalization he created for himself. It is the same kind of rationalization Judas used.”
Molina said the county Board of Supervisors will be looking at the settlement and then decide what to do next.
“We have a judge who ruled this was clearly a violation of the public trust. We basically won. Why would I settle with somebody? Greed is really present here,” she said, adding: “This is not over.”
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes the Santa Monica Mountains, said through an aide he would not comment on the MRCA settlement with Whittier.
Local residents opposed to the project were disappointed with the settlement.
“The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is no longer a conservancy. It is an acquisition corporation that buys lands for oil companies,” said Roy McKee, president of Whittier Hills Oil Watch.
“The Pacific Palisades is rich in oil, maybe that’s the next place Mr. Edmiston sells,” McKee said. “The MRCA and SMMC exhibited that they can be bought.”
Edmiston said he was pleased the settlement prohibits the use of fracking. He said he wished the county had participated in the settlement, even as he characterized it as far from perfect.
“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to go to this kind of funding mechanism,” he said. “We need to look at this kind of alternative funding, or we will not have the parks we have.”
Collier said the city will return to Judge James Chalfant’s courtroom in downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 6, at which point he’s expected to dismiss the two lawsuits. The county’s complaint is another matter.
“We will have to wait and see about the county,” Collier said.