Sheriff's Department made a helipad near Villanueva's home. The landowner wants it gone

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Alene Tchekmedyian
·6 min read
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A plot of land near Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva's home has been leveled.
A plot of land near Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva's home has been leveled. (Alene Tchekmedyian / Los Angeles Times)

One day last summer, workers for the Southern California Gas Co. were on a plot of land the utility owns that sits above the home of Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in La Habra Heights. Some sheriff's officials approached and asked about the possibility of the department building a helicopter landing pad on the property.

The utility declined the request, according to a letter its lawyer sent to L.A. County.

Despite the rejection, work on a helicopter landing area began, with a crew grading dirt and hauling in soil in recent weeks, according to the letter and the La Habra Heights city manager.

In the cease-and-desist letter, the attorney for the gas company demanded that the work on the helipad stop and that the county undo what was done to the land.

The gas company's property sits behind a chain-link fence with signs warning against trespassing and tampering.

"This activity was without the authorization or approval of SoCalGas, for which SoCalGas would be entitled to damages for trespass and inverse condemnation," Michelle Meghrouni, a lawyer for the utility, said in the letter.

Villanueva did not respond to questions by The Times. However in a statement released Wednesday evening the Sheriff's Department disputed the gas company's allegations.

The department said sheriff's detectives met last month with representatives from the gas company and received permission "to clear a small area of land to use in the event of an emergency, which is appropriate given the remote location and absence of suitable landing areas."

Sheriff's officials determined the landing area was needed during an assessment of risks to the sheriff's safety at his home following "numerous credible threats, doxing, and protests," according to the statement.

The statement said the work performed consisted primarily of brush clearance. "No dirt was ever brought in, no fencing was ever built, and there was never a plan to pour cement or build a helipad. The goal was simply to clear a plot of land which could be utilized in an emergency for landing a helicopter, just like an intersection or school field is used as a contingency in an emergency," it said.

Asked by The Times for documents showing the gas company had given permission for the work, Villanueva did not address the question.

When asked about the discrepancy between the two accounts, a spokeswoman for the gas company declined to comment beyond the letter.

In the letter, addressed to L.A. County Counsel Rodrigo Castro-Silva, the utility said the work on land once used as a gas storage field is believed to have occurred sometime between Jan. 15 and Feb. 2. The company learned of the construction when the assistant city manager of La Habra Heights inquired as to whether it had permits for the work, according to the letter.

The utility asked that the county designate someone to be in charge of ensuring construction is halted and that the land be restored. The remediation work, the company said, would include "testing for the environmental quality and removal of the soil brought onto the Property."

In a response to the company, county attorneys wrote that they had directed the Sheriff's Department to "immediately cease any and all activities" on the property while the county conducts an investigation.

Purchasing documents obtained by The Times show that the Sheriff's Department hired a contractor for nearly $5,000 in January to perform what was billed as "security upgrades." The Sheriff's Department indicated in the documents that "grading this area is essential for safety and security of the sheriff. This graded area will provide a safe area for a helicopter to land in the event of an emergency."

Villanueva’s home, like the residences of other public officials, was a gathering spot last fall for demonstrators who called on the sheriff to release the names of deputies involved in recent fatal shootings. The Sheriff's Department has declined to do so, citing threats of violence against the deputies, without providing details.

Villanueva said at the time that his home address had been plastered on banners hung from overpasses on freeways and on fliers stuck to telephone poles that resembled fugitive wanted posters.

The roughly 14 protesters who showed up to Villanueva’s house one afternoon in November were matched almost one-to-one by a line of deputies with batons. Protestors chanted: “Villanueva you can’t hide, we want killer deputies identified,” and “Give us the names.” A helicopter circled overhead.

Supervisor Janice Hahn said in a statement that she is not opposed to the sheriff having quick access to a helipad for public safety purposes. "But, obviously, he can’t just build one on someone else’s private property. I would be willing to work with him to find a more appropriate and legal place for a helipad," she said.

There is a helicopter pad at a Sheriff's Department station about 7 miles away from Villanueva's home.

Ed Obayashi, a national policing expert, said he believed the request was "highly unusual," but that he did not want to question the findings of the threat assessment conducted on the sheriff's home.

"I'm unaware of any ... California sheriff, that needs that type of immediate access to a helicopter, but on the other hand, I would defer to the L.A. sheriff's office evaluation of the need," he said.

La Habra Heights City Manager Fabiola Huerta said the city received a complaint on the evening of Feb. 2 about dirt being moved and equipment on the property. City investigators visited the location the following morning and found that the slope of the hillside had been leveled. She said any type of grading done in the hillside community requires a permit.

The city notified the utility about the complaint and opened an investigation into city code violations.

“From the information we received from the gas company, I believe it was the Sheriff’s Department doing the work,” she said.

Inspector General Max Huntsman, who oversees the Sheriff's Department, said his office will consult with the county counsel regarding the findings of their investigation.

La Habra Heights, an upscale residential community of about 1,800 single-family homes in the hills between Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley, has no specific rules governing the construction of helicopter pads, but any request to do so would be sent to the Planning Commission for review, Huerta said.

Huerta told The Times that no one had pulled a permit to build a helicopter pad at either address — or anywhere else in the city. And the Sheriff's Department did not notify the city of any construction.

“We’re actually very small," she said. "So something like that would really stand out.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.