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Sheriff Villanueva's Personal Helipad Sparks Fight With SoCalGas

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The helipad in La Habra Heights. (City of La Habra Heights)
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On Jan. 20, an L.A. County Sheriff’s Department facilities manager sent an email to a colleague with the subject line, “DA RUSH SHERIFF SECURITY.” The manager wanted to quickly hire a vendor to build a landing pad “for a helicopter to land and pick up sheriff in the event of an emergency.”

The helicopter pad was to be built on a dirt lot a few hundred feet from Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s home in La Habra Heights.

“It is essential to the safety and wellbeing of the sheriff,” said the email, which was provided by the county counsel’s office.

But the project drew the ire of SoCalGas, which owns the property and disputes the Sheriff’s Department’s claim that the utility had approved the project. The firm fired off a cease-and-desist letter to County Counsel Rodrigo Castro-Silva, who subsequently ordered the Sheriff’s Department to halt all work on the effort while he investigates.

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The department indicated in a statement that it sought to create the helipad after “a threat assessment was conducted at the Sheriff’s residence, due to numerous credible threats, doxing, and protests.” It did not offer further details of the threats; small groups of protestors have gathered outside the sheriff’s house in the months after the killing of George Floyd and shootings by deputies.

According to the statement, Sheriff’s detectives met on Jan. 14 with SoCalGas representatives and won approval “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.”

SoCalGas tells a different story.

According to the utility’s cease-and-desist letter, Sheriff’s officials informally approached company employees last August at the property, formally known as the Whittier Gas Storage Field. When the Sheriff’s officials said they wanted to build a helipad for the sheriff, “SoCalGas declined the request,” the letter states.

Then, in late January, the city of La Habra Heights received a complaint. “Our staff went out to investigate and there was some grading done on the hillside – they actually flattened out some land there,” City Manager Fabiola Huerta told us.

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The city inquired with SoCalGas, which then fired off its letter to the county.

SoCalGas said its property “abuts or is in close proximity to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s personal residence” and the grading of it was without authorization or approval.

Documents show the sheriff paid a paving company $4,950 to build the dirt helipad. It’s unclear how much more the county might have to pay to return the land to its original state, as requested by La Habra Heights. The city is conducting an “active code enforcement action,” said Huerta.

The Sheriff’s Department maintains it did nothing wrong.

“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 in its statement.

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Sheriff Villanueva has not commented.

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