The years-long struggle over 510 acres in Fullerton, known as West Coyote Hills, has taken another turn as a conservation group has filed a lawsuit against the city while officials try to raise money to purchase some of the land before it is developed.

The property, the largest swath of undeveloped land left in Orange County, is owned by the oil giant Chevron and has for the better part of this decade been a battleground in the fight between developers and environmentalists over vanishing open space.

Pacific Coast Homes, a Chevron subsidiary, has received approval to develop up to 760 homes on the property in the northwest part of the city. However, the company has given the city until 2017 to buy up as much of the property as it can to convert to parkland.

Last month, city leaders announced they are applying for up to $20 million in grants for the land purchase. But that would only be enough to acquire a fraction of the parcel, which is valued at $145 million. Regardless of how much land the city can purchase, 301 acres are already slated to be open public space.

However, Friends of Coyote Hills, the local conservation group who is suing the city, wants all 510 acres to be preserved. And in its lawsuit, the group alleges that the city is violating a 2012 referendum in which Fullerton voters shot down the West Coyote Hills development.

The lawsuit claims that the city violated the referendum, Measure W, by moving forward with the current plans, instead of terminating the past approvals — like zone changes — because of what they call “poison pill” language found in the city ordinance surrounding the plan.

“In the event the Development Agreement is terminated, all other development approvals for the project shall be null and void,” reads a stipulation in a 2011 resolution that modified the development plans.

That should have killed the approvals that changed the zoning from oil and gas to specific planned district, said Catherine Engberg of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP, an attorney for Friends of Coyote Hills.

“What they should have done was to seek out new approvals,” Engberg said. “That leaves them with a legal problem” since they didn’t revert the zoning back to oil and gas and reapply for a zone change.

“If Chevron was forced to reapply for the approvals, they would all be shot down by the public,” said Angela Lindstrom, president of Friends of West Coyote Hills.

But the city and its attorney see things differently.

Jeff Oderman, of Rutan & Tucker LLP, said Measure W didn’t activate the “poison pill” language that the Friends allege. He said the city moved forward in a fashion that respected the voters and Chevron’s property rights.

Oderman also said that the environmentalists were at the table the whole time during talks between the city and Chevron and referendums are only legally applicable for one year.

That’s not how Lindstrom remembers the situation. She said the group only had a couple weeks to look at thousands of pages of development documents before the plan was presented to the planning commission last October.

“We thought that everybody was working in good faith,” Lindstrom said. She also said that Chevron wasn’t a willing seller until after the site was appraised as residential zoning, which raised the price substantially.

Meanwhile, Mayor Jennifer Fitzgerald touts the current development plan, which, if the city doesn’t acquire the whole site, calls for Chevron to build 10 miles of trails; restore native wildlife habitat; maintain upkeep on the open spaces; and build five vista parks.

“I think the plan we’re moving forward with now is a win-win situation for everyone. It effectively gives Fullerton the largest park in North Orange County,” Fitzgerald said.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC intern. Please contact him at spencercustodio@gmail.com.

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