Birch Hills Golf Course, A Toxic Blunder.

Title to the Birch Hills Golf course, owned by Union Oil/Chevron since it was built in 1972, was to be transferred to the City of Brea in exchange for being released from the obligation of paying a Parks in Lieu Fee. Who knew what a total nightmare this seemingly simple matter would become?

The pissing contest between Chevron and the City of Brea has consumed over three years in closed sessions, allowed the once popular course to be dramatically reduced in size and to fall into a horrible state of disrepair and finally, last Tuesday, it showed up on Council’s agenda as Consent Item 21.

Consent Item! Bull Sugar!

Consent Calendars are reserved for routine, non-controversial, housekeeping items, or matters the Council has achieved consensus on after previous discussion. Generally, topics that have not been previously discussed by Council should not be put on the consent agenda.

Since the early ‘90’s Staff and Council have been burying critical items on the Consent Calendar to avoid conflicting public opinion. It’s a practice I’ve been fighting for years.

The moment agendas are posted late Friday afternoon, I immediately check the Consent Calendar to see what is getting swept under the rug at the next meeting. I find dubious items virtually every time, the Birch Hills matter is a prime example.

Why Pull The Item For Discussion? 

Three years in the making and this multi-million dollar city asset was being acquired like a thief in the night, with no provision for discussion. Again, bull sugar.

Well over a hundred pages of complicated legal documents, with 14 attachments, were handed off to Council Friday evening and they… we all… had 97 hours to digest and research or corroborate it all.

Thankfully there were several folks willing to attempt the task.

What they found was a grossly incomplete set of documents that saddled Brea, forever, with a toxic, barely profitable piece of property with virtually no means of turning it around without spending a fortune.

How toxic? How costly to mitigate? What options for repurposing some or all of the land to a more safe and profitable use? Nothing in the documents offered even a hint at answers.

Birch Hills Toxicity Is Serious Issue.

Chevron’s field assistant to the project manager on the La Floresta and the senior boots on the ground as the biohazards on the golf course and Rails-to-Trails segment were mitigated, John Bickel, pleaded with Council at their study session to pull the item from the Consent Calendar and table it until they had a better idea of what they were really accepting.

John provided a detailed account of burying countless yards of contaminated soil under the parking lot and the additional mitigation required to bring the property up to residential standards.

John concluded his remarks with the admonition that we just don’t know enough… there are still too many unknowns. There’s a lot more explaining to do before we saddle ourselves with this monster.

Addendum – John Bickel: I think it’s important to add some clarity on exactly what is buried there, why there is more remediation to do.We (Chevron) cleaned up to meet golf course spec not residential. There really is no danger in playing golf, the lake is not contaminated. The soil beneath MAY be, no one knows for sure, it has liner underneath it is why it wasn’t sampled. The unknowns and talk of toxics could damage the income of the course.

Erin Brockovich ring a bell?

Let me add that converting this land to residential use has been a part of the General Plan since 2003. It’s on the city website. The map on page 40 shows this property as low density residential.

The city planners knew it. Unocal/Chevron knew it. Yet the documents to effect the transfer of title provide little or no clear answers how the city might proceed in that direction in the future.

Another Voice Of Reason.

During Matters From The Audience, Dwight Manley chastised Council for putting such an important matter on Consent Calendar and to table the item until the many blanks could be filled in. Clearly Council could not proceed with any certainty based upon the information available.

Here are Dwight’s comments to Council. Please listen carefully. Would you have proceeded blindly to conclude this transaction knowing how little you really knew?

Vargas Exits, Council Dives In.

Forced by legal counsel to recuse himself, Council member Vargas left the meeting. Having voiced his serious concerns since early in the weekend about the Birch Hills issues, Mr. Vargas appeared to be the only real voice of reason.

Many people, believing that Council had clearly heard the public’s position on the matter, left the meeting as well. Thinking it was tabled… they were in for the shock of their lives.

A Comedy Of Errors.

I was watching from home and hung in there. The thirty minutes of bungling and incompetence that followed was gut-wrenching.

In response to half-baked questions from an obviously uninformed Council, staff pulled off an exhibition of world class sugarcoating, deflection, outright misinformation including the “$80 a cubic yard” lie.

If you have the stomach for it, you can watch the streaming video on the city website.

I texted Dwight, warning him that it appeared Council was being drug down a path towards approving the transfer of the Birch Hills Golf Course and direct the Mayor to execute all documents necessary to close escrow.

That’s exactly what they did. They saddled us with a toxic horror and no means to dealing with it lest we spend millions upon millions of dollars ($300 million?) and beg, with fingers crossed, that Chevron and the EPA would approve our request to clean up and repurpose the property.

Unbelievable! Inconceivable!

Brea resident, Thomas Kwan, turned off his TV and emailed Council after listening to Dwight’s detailed and heartfelt plea. A copy of it reached me on Friday. Here I’ve paraphrased a few excerpts.

The last document of the set of exhibits setting forth the request for approval of the Birch Hills Golf Course Ownership Transfer Documents is the Covenants, Conditions, and Environmental Restrictions…which contains the Soil Mediation Plans for the different parts of the property.

There remains on the southern portion of the property toxic chemicals including among others, PCB’s polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins/furans, relatively stable compounds toxic chemicals that will be there for a long time.

Who in their right mind would want to accept the Draconian responsibilities and liabilities associated with that property and the associated acquisition agreement?

Keep in mind not all of the soil has been tested. There may be areas of contamination that have not been found, have been buried without record or carried by the elements elsewhere to an untested area.

As far as I am concerned the owner (Chevron) should keep Birch Hills, build a sarcophagus over the site and fence it with skull and crossbones signs around the property.

If Brea wants to take over compliance with the EPA and OCHCA restrictions and share the responsibilities and liabilities, then Chevron should fund a multimillion dollar trust for such.

So What’s The Damned Rush?

There are no critical deadlines, threatening penalties or life and death issues here. No real urgency at all. Hell, we’ve screwed around with this for three to four years. Can’t we take a few more weeks… months… to make sure we do this right?

There are legally acceptable ways to delay the final execution of escrow while we connect all the dots. Why wouldn’t Council use every means at their disposal to do this right?


27 thoughts on “Birch Hills Golf Course, A Toxic Blunder.

  1. I agree with Thomas Kwan, how do we know if there are, or are not, toxins on other parts of that land? Why would the city approve something so toxic without even a report analyzing what the clean up process is and how much it would be?

    Did we elect a bunch of idiots? If they didn’t understand the documents, say so and let’s get a true independent interpreter! The Council needs to listen to the citizens!

    • Leslee… Thomas is a good man. I’ve welcomed his thoughts and comments for some time.

      The mitigation that was done, as I understand it, is to a minimum standard below that required for residential development. I don’t believe this Council has a clue what to do other than following the lead of staff.

      Their motivation, staff and Council, is a complete mystery. The only thing I do believe is that, whatever it is, it doesn’t include us.

  2. The first thing that came to my mind was can it be declared a Superfund site? This is way outside my wheelhouse so maybe that’s already been explored or it isn’t “toxic enough”, so just asking the question.

    • Jim… our 20 something little acres are hardly the Love Canal. We’re on our own here and I would feel much better if we actually had competent people looking out for our interests.

  3. Every person In Brea should be angry that this matter was put on a consent calendar. This proves the city was trying to escape public comment, feedback, input or examination.

    To make a decision like this based on “data” that was off the top of public works employee’s heads is insanity. The city spent 24,000 for a consultant to make pictures for the intersection. They spent over 30,000 on cliffwood delineators. Yet public works claims they don’t have any money to assess the birch hills toxic dump.

    Every one in Brea needs to pray that the 4 council members that astonishingly voted 4-0 for this can HALT the escrow and get ALL the data FIRST.

    It’s not if but when the next drought comes and the golf course is dead. Then what?

  4. Rick, thanks for bringing this to the attention of Brea residents. I want to add that the restrictions on the use of the property are forever or in perpetuity, unless the EPA and OCHCA release those restrictions on use and the existing owners consent to a different use.

    So to repurpose the use from a golf course to residential development without waiting a long time would require further expensive remediation along with permission from the existing owners. Did anyone ask how much the satisfaction of each of those conditions would cost in terms of money and liability assumed?

    Also, another question that comes up is, if that land is repurposed for residential development what waivers, if any will future residents need to sign to buy property there, as additional remediation can only go so far. Will those waivers save the city from liability?

    Also in most acquisitions of property with known contaminants, prudent due diligence would require an independent Phase II environmental study of the property to properly assess the level of contaminants and associated risks. I did not see it in the materials included in the agenda.

    • Tom… Again, all good points. Council was misguided on some issues and oblivious of others. They were in way over their heads and, I think, more concerned about their public images than the public’s admonitions.

      There are so many unanswered questions. And no, there were key documents missing from their information packets which Council member Vargas shared with me yesterday. He had to hunt them down on his own.

      Council needs to withdraw from their hasty actions of last Tuesday night. They need a seminar in prudent due diligence.

  5. I’m at a loss here to think the council members who are our neighbors and members of this wonderful city, would make such a hasty decision.

    I commend Steve Vargas for removing himself, but maybe the council is delighted that he did so he couldn’t object to their hasty move.

    Why in the world would the council betray the trust and respect of the people of Brea? The council should be the ones protecting and looking out for the people of Brea. Unconscionable.

    Kudos to John Bickel, Dwight Manley, and Rick Clark for caring and bringing another mess once again to light. These are individuals who truly care about Brea and it’s citizens and yet they are ignored, abused, and their warnings ridiculed. What a travesty and disgrace.

    • Judy… Just moments into Council’s discussion Tuesday night I realized they were going to approve staff’s recommendations and do the unthinkable. In that instant I knew this blog would go online before the weekend was over and I began my first draft as they adjourned their meeting.

      As are many, I am stumped as to what motives could produce such incomprehensible stupidity. I am inclined to believe we’ll never know. I do know this, it would be foolish for any of them to consider running for another term.

      • Rick. With the greatest of respect. Worrying about the next election before we see if Council can undo this “forever” decision is like going in for a lung cancer operation and worrying about what you’re going to give the postman for Christmas.

        We are in a crisis situation, created by staff and the city lawyers, approved by 4 Council members, and your article and the above comments should clearly send a message that 3 of those 4 better come down here with us mortals and hear the people.

      • Dwight… also with great respect, my first and most fervent hope is that, as you said, 3 of the 4 Council members better come down with us mortals. They have the means to reverse their blunder. They must choose to do so.

        Their track record would suggest this is a high mountain to climb but not impossible. Will they respond to the people? I hope so. If they don’t, I’m confident the people will respond.

        I’m glad you made this distinction. Thanks.

  6. It seems Brea has its own deep state swamp. It’s called… staff. Listening to Dwight I hear negligence, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary responsibility and perhaps misrepresentation.

    They’re all supposed to act in the best interest of the taxpayers. They’re not supposed to take risks with unknown potential liabilities. They should be taking an accrual now for potential lawsuits and payouts later.

    Brea has no business being in the golf course business anyhow. Chevron knew what they were doing. Off loading their own liability. But they are still potentially liable for consequences as it is reasonable to believe they knew or should have known the depth (get it?) of the potential liabilities. That’s their business after all!

    • Chuck… you’re a good listener and have summarized things well. Your point about the city having no business being in business is right on!

      • I can’t believe this, never was aware of and would have changed my mind to buy our current property. I grew up in Niagara Falls NY, home of Love Canal.

        The city knew chemical companies dumped toxic waste on the land. The whole area was residential, all over deathly toxic waste. I can tell you about my friend’s brother whose bedroom was in the finished basement had Crohn’s and other health issues and her first was born disabled. High rates of cancer, our friends who couldn’t figure out why they could never get anything to grow in there yard (the dirt was contaminated). Kids playing in black sludge that seeped up due the the waste not being capped.

        My dad and his siblings all worked in the damn chemical companies (like Olin Mathieson) my dad and 4 of his siblings had Parkinson’s Disease – an unheard rate for a generally non-hereditary disease (it got passed down to my brother and two cousins. I have Epilepsy and my daughter has narcolepsy- oddly high incidence of neurological disorders.) My brother and one cousin had no children and I hope this helps break the chain of this illness in my family. My sister in law who was mentally handicapped developed fatal lung cancer (no she never smoked and was about the level of an 8 year old poor thing.).

        It was “cleaned up” under “SuperFund” and people move, die and the city builds new low-cost homes on the “cleaned up land.” People snapped them up. Couldn’t give me one for free.

        My parents have passed and we sold our family home. Very sad but my ties to that city are cut. I am just sharing this all to put a human face to toxic waste dumping and the aftermath.

        Now more then ever I cant wait to retire and move out of state. Does anyone know where we are at with possible clean-up and buy out my property which borders the golf course?

      • Rebecca… your story leaves me speechless. What you and your family have faced is tragic. It reminds us how important it is to step in now and manage our local environmental issues… to make choices anchored in facts and good common sense. We all wish you the very best.

      • I think Chevron is paying off the Council members to close this deal- greasing their palms is what the Council gets. Chevron should never have dumped there and should pay for an independently managed testing and clean-up with full tranperancy to the public.

      • Rebecca… to be perfectly fair, nothing I’ve read or heard suggests that sort of criminal behavior on the part of Council or staff.

        I’m reminded of Hanlon’s Razor, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Here is something folks might Google when they have little else to do: Dunning-Kruger effect.

    • I don’t have “reply” links for Rebecca Hyla’s posts, but the similarities to Love Canal are more than would appear.

      In Love Canal, the company specially told the school board that the area was NOT SAFE for residential or school construction. Here, Chevron specifically told the board that it was probably not safe for residential construction, in that they didn’t sample under the ground barrier.

      In Love Canal, the Board condemned (get it?) the land to build a school. Here, although I haven’t checked exactly what the Council “consented” to, it appears that the Council wants to sell the land to a developer to build residential units.

      Although Federal law makes the (successors of) the company which actually dumped the toxic materials liable for cleanup, who knows how many decades it may take?

      • Arthur… when it seems that almost no one else, including Council or staff, has a complete picture of the total current toxicity, what would be required to mitigate it completely or how much it would cost… today and sometime down the road, I’m not sure where you’ve come across your information. Please share.

        When did Chevron make such a declaration and what do you mean “under the ground barrier?”

        If you didn’t check exactly what the Council approved (item was pulled from Consent) how did you come to the conclusion that they wanted to sell the land to a developer… and for residential units?

        Per the agreement, Chevron has taken on responsibility for the parking lot, giving the city easement rights… until the city decides to repurpose the property to something other than a golf course or open space. At that time the city assumes all responsibility.

  7. I don’t know what stuns me the most: that council is willing to take on this potential liability, or that council is in such a hurry that they’re not willing to do homework on ground conditions that could harm the Brea residents they purport to represent.

    Not to mention that Birch Hills could possibly be an endless source of expense (either from health lawsuits or toxic cleanup). I’ve lived in Brea for 30 years, and this is the first time I’ve felt that City Council is ruining the living experience in Brea.

    Too many signals, more people to overcrowd the city, barely enough water, not enough parking (Mercury apartments); I hope for the best but am increasingly cynical about our future.

    And on a not-as-important note, my observation as a golfer, Birch Hills is one of the worst courses I know for maintaining good fairways, greens, and sand traps

    • Steve… I was 100% with ya right up to the parenthetical reference to the Mercury project. First, Mercury is typical of the only way to keep businesses that pay over minimum wage here. Second, the Birch Hills crisis is so critical that we can’t afford anything unrelated to deflect us from convincing Council to fix their blunder.

  8. As someone that grew up next to birch hills, and had my first golf lessons there, I can assure you the course is nothing like what it was.

    We were sold a bill of goods, having a chopped down group of 18 holes “deeded” to us. If the community wants a real golf course that badly, put it by the olinda museum and make it something people will be proud of.

    In this case, it’s a laughing stock of a course and the charade that it’s got some kind of big money revenue potential is a lie.

    Add in the two layers of management companies running it now, and then the layer for public works staff overseeing them, then the accounting staff overseeing them, then the executive staff overseeing them, then the council overseeing them, and you have the ingredients of a cluster you know what.

    Why does this have to happen to us ?

    • Dwight… exactly what any intelligent Council member could have told staff Tuesday night… but they didn’t. They pretended to ask questions like they understood the issues, accepted staff’s fabrications with a look of due diligence plastered across their faces and blindly voted unanimously.

      Yeah, why does this have to happen?

      • Is anyone surprised by the City? All I have to do is look at the Hines 30+ acre project. Sad.

      • Alicia… the Hines/Avalon Bay project(s) are anchored in a horribly mismanaged sale of legacy BOUSD property at a loss of at least $75 million dollars. That is truly sad.

        The city Council’s failure to perform due diligence in approving the transfer of the Birch Hills Golf Course, unless it is halted and proper reviews done, will be a toxic and financial disaster of Biblical proportions foisted on many generations to come.

        The two “events” are incomparable and the responsibility of separate bureaucracies.

  9. The Mayor or a majority of the Council should call and notice a special meeting of the Council to rescind the approval, though with the 4-0 vote on the matter as a consent item, it may be wishful thinking.

    We can only guess what happened during the final negotiations after so many years that made the deal so tempting, because under the Brown Act, the negotiation of real property deals may be done out of the purview of the public.

    • Thomas… Hoping you’re right about rescinding the approval. It would give them time to properly educate themselves and, perhaps, renegotiate some of the terms.

      The item was pulled from Consent Calendar and received a vote specific unto itself.

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