Over the Hill

Illustration by Bob AulThe late Senator Barry Goldwater spent his long political life boosting progress and never-ending growth. But in retirement in Arizona, Goldwater moderated. He began to appreciate the natural wonders his no-holds-barred growth had destroyed. He realized that water projects and dam construction and home building are all just a never-ending spiral, leading only to greater growth and need for more homes and dams. Near the end of his life, he even admitted that if he could do it all over, he would oppose building Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River—a massive power generator that made modern Phoenix possible.

Irvine Mayor Larry Agran is running in the opposite direction. Once the preeminent slow-growth official in the county, a man who understood the value of land preservation, Agran has become an enthusiastic builder and unabashed Irvine Co. ally, boasting recently that his job as mayor now is to "see the buildout of the city." Nothing exemplifies this transformation better than Quail Hill, located just off the 405 freeway near Jeffrey in Irvine.

"All of that will be preserved," Agran used to say of the low rocky hill. In the 1980s, the fight to preserve Quail Hill was Agran's Gettysburg. He constantly pointed to the unspoiled land as his greatest victory—the point where he had rallied an otherwise staunchly conservative citizenry to oppose developing the biologically sensitive hill.

It's named after quail, but the hill is vital to Canada Geese migration. Before his failed 1990 mayoral reelection bid, Agran used video footage of the geese to demonstrate to voters his environmental cred. More than 3,000 geese are said to live on the hill for three months during the year.

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Make that used to live there. Residents don't really see the geese anymore. Their habitat was decimated by the Irvine Co. development of a golf course that snakes around the back of Quail Hill and consumes part of William R. Mason Regional Park. But that's nothing compared to what's coming next.

Approved by the Agran-led Irvine City Council in 2001, the Irvine Co.'s Quail Hill development plan will put 2,500 homes and 1.1 million square feet of office space on 700 acres smack in the middle of land Agran once wanted preserved forever. Still under construction, Quail Hill is a surreal place of streets named Vermillion and Nightshade winding through neighborhoods of partially built townhouse designs called Harmony, Serenity, Cashmere and Merlot. Homes there will sell for around $400,000.

The Irvine Co. promotes Quail Hill as "the place that lets the natural world speak for itself and gives us the space we need to look and listen." And in what must be a sudden, chance meeting with reality after 30 years of cookie-cutter development, the company says, "Homes here are not meant to dominate the landscape, but rather take their inspiration from it."

Ten years ago, Agran's legacy was anchored on the preservation of Quail Hill and the land that surrounds it. That legacy has now been destroyed. Far from learning the value of nature, all Agran seems to have learned over the past decade is the price of political power.

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