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Sleepy La Habra Heights jolted into lively public debate over oil by Measure A

La Habra Heights, a small city on the southeastern edge of Los Angeles County, is set to become the latest battle ground in the debate over how much authority localities have to regulate the oil industry, as voters head to the polls to consider Measure A, an initiative that would ban new drilling.

“We’re all just so damn lucky to be here,” says Jane Williams, sitting in the garden of a house she has occupied since the city’s incorporation.

Everybody in La Habra Heights sings from the same hymnal about its beauty. They praise avocado trees, no sidewalks, and the minimum one-acre zoning that begets low-density this low-density living.

“When we moved here people had herds of goats, and pygmy goats. Herds of sheep! Every other house had a horse,” Williams says.

Oil has been here too, right from the beginning, and then some – and oil is now sowing the biggest public disagreement in the city’s 36-year history.

Five-year resident Jesse Loverne, too, praises the La Habra Heights way of life. But he says he’s worried about the ongoing reach of oil into the ground under houses in the heights, and in nearby Whittier.

As a member of Heights Oil Watch, he backs Measure A, which aims to ban future drilling, limit redrilling of existing wells, and prohibit any so-called high intensity oil techniques such as hydraulic fracturing within city limits.

These controls go further than new statewide fracking rules taking effect in July, which only mandate monitoring and reporting for that activity.

Loverne says that’s the point. “I’m not convinced the state is doing enough to regulate it,” he says. He wants La Habra Heights to ban fracking because of environment and health risks. “Until the state and federal governments put forth a meaningful regulation I think it needs to be in the hands of the city for each little unique situation every city has,” he says.

La Habra Heights’ measure resembles ones passed last November in San Benito and Mendocino counties; so, too, does the oil lobby’s reaction bear a resemblance to those earlier fights.

Californians for Energy Independence, a pro-oil political coalition, has poured in $400,000 so far to defeat Measure A, much of that on lawyers’ fees for a dispute over ballot language. (Measure A supporters have spent just over $26,000, including lawyers’ fees donated in-kind for that same skirmish.)

And local independent oil companies with interests in town are carefully negotiating the political fight, offering information about their operations and opinions about regulation.

Matrix Oil has applied to develop wells; the company has paused an environmental impact report midway through, awaiting the vote’s outcome. Vice President Joe Paquette says he’d rather the environmental impact report, and the county’s usual process, played out. “This initiative, what it does. It’s attempting to bypass all of the regulators. Let’s throw the regulation into the laps of the city council. Why would you want that? It’s just the wrong way to govern. And it’s the wrong way to regulate.”

California Resources Corporation, a corporate descendant of Occidental Petroleum, also opposes the measure. CRC has been operating its 141 wells in the Heights for decades, and while Measure A backers insist CRC’s current activities aren’t targeted by the initiative, the company’s lawyers aren’t so sure.

“There’s potential for litigation if this thing happens,” said CRC’s Steve Gregg.

That’s not an empty threat. When Mendocino and San Benito approved bans, oil company lawsuits quickly followed.

Four of La Habra Heights’ five city councilmembers oppose the measure; they take that threat seriously That includes Jane Williams, who nods at her neighbors’ Yes on A signs.

“I understand their fear. I don’t feel it,” she says.

Williams is up for re-election Tuesday. She’s the only opponent to Measure A among three candidates vying for two seats.

She points out that oil royalties make up a significant amount of the small city’s revenue. “How the books balance makes a great deal of difference to me. They’re putting in jeopardy 13 percent of our budget. And we don’t have 13 percent to cut.”

While La Habra Heights held no official debates, public comment at a recent city council meeting became a politely contentious arena for airing views – both on the political question, and on which side has the better claim to being more local.

 “I put more faith and trust in our neighbors…than I do in some radical environmental law firm from San Francisco who’s got another agenda altogether,” said Measure A opponent Dave Frankenbach. A few minutes later, referencing an oil company’s offices in Santa Barbara, another resident, Mike Hughes said, “I drove a mile and a half to get here. I resent the implication that Measure A was brought by out of town people. I am one of the drafters of Measure A.”

La Habra Heights is the first California city where voters will consider a ban with this kind of reach. Still, urban planning expert Bill Fulton points out that the idea’s not brand new: coastal cities began limiting onshore oil operations in the 1980s.

“That’s a pretty well established practice all up and down California,” Fulton says. “The question is whether you can use that kind of process in this kind of situation.

This situation - whether cities can limit high intensity techniques including fracking for the otherwise approved land use of oil drilling – is pretty new for California law; legal and planning experts say legal questions here are murky at best.

Even backers acknowledge courts would have some role interpreting it. But La Habra Heights resident Sayre Weaver says it’s worth risking lawsuits to pass Measure A.

“Local governments who are much closer to the people have an opportunity to say, we don’t want to live this way. And that can trickle up and change the state legislature’s mind over time,” says Measure A supporter Sayre Weaver. “Maybe it will.”

La Habra Heights won’t be the last word on local control in California, no matter the outcome. Another, similar measure over oil will hit the ballot in the far-northern county of Butte next year.