CLAREMONT — Many people in this picturesque college town like to think there is something uniquely "Claremontish" about a heated battle over whether the need for more housing outweighs carefully planned growth.
Proud of what they call a special sense of community, engendered in part by six highly rated colleges, residents often compare their "healthy" discussions over development to the debate at traditional New England town meetings.
But when an Orange County developer proposed rezoning a vacant 20-acre lot to build a 340-unit apartment complex nearly two years ago, the ensuing debate proved bigger and more vociferous than usual.
Religious leaders disagreed. College presidents differed. Several civic leaders who initially supported the project switched sides.
And a former council member who originally voted against the plan became a paid consultant for the developer.
Next Tuesday the issue will be decided in the first initiative election in Claremont's history, with voters determining whether the parcel between Padua Avenue and Andrews Drive just north of Foothill Boulevard should be rezoned from light-industrial to multifamily use.
Support on Petitions
The proposed zoning change, which was rejected last fall by both the Claremont Planning Commission and the City Council, was placed on the ballot after the developer earlier this year collected more than 6,000 signatures, far more than the 15% of the city's approximately 19,000 registered voters required, to get it on the ballot.
Since then, this quiet city of 35,000 has been embroiled in a clamorous campaign over Measure A, intensified by an aggressive absentee ballot drive and charges that the developer, Claremont Park Limited Partnership, is trying to "buy the election" by outspending opponents $123,187 to $1,975.
"This has not been business as usual in Claremont," said Mayor Judy Wright, an opponent of the zoning change. "There is a great fear held by many of us that we are losing control of our town."
Last week, a Claremont architect who had worked for the developer announced without explanation that he no longer wanted to be associated with the project. In letters to local papers, several residents complained that paid door-to-door canvassers for the developer misrepresented the issue during visits to their homes.
In addition, 3,000 flyers that included endorsements from the Claremont Presbyterian Church had to be destroyed after supporters of the project were warned that only the minister and not the church's governing board was in favor of the zoning change.
However, Terry Fitzgerald, a former councilwoman and now a paid consultant and spokeswoman for the developer, said that any misrepresentations were unintentional and that several of the canvassers already had been fired because of citizens' complaints.
'Try to Straighten It Out'
"As soon as we hear about something like that, we try to straighten it out," said Fitzgerald, an attorney. Fitzgerald voted against the zoning change in September along with her then-colleagues on the council, but since has earned $11,787 for her work in support of the project.
"Sometimes we don't find out about a particular problem until we read about it in a letter to the editor," she said.
With 3,500 college students swarming in every fall and an elderly population of about 4,000, one of the few things everyone agrees on is the desperate need for more rental housing.
A study last January by the city Department of Community Development found that of Claremont's 1,436 apartment units, only 21 were vacant.
Supporters of the Claremont Park project contend that the proposed apartments would ease the city's housing shortage and that the site, tucked into Claremont's far northeastern corner, otherwise would continue to sit vacant for lack of industrial development.
"It's residential or nothing," Fitzgerald said. "It's a question of having high-quality apartments on that land versus having it sit empty for a long time."
Opponents agree that rental housing is needed but argue that the proposed site has been zoned for industrial use for 17 years and that, with only 2.5% of the city's land zoned for that purpose, the parcel should remain vacant until the proper development comes along.
"The fact that there is not much demand for industrial land does not mean we in Claremont jump into the hoop of the moment," said Gordon Curtis, owner of Curtis Real Estate and honorary chairman of Citizens for Responsible Zoning and Against Measure A.
"One of the things that makes Claremont distinctive is we believe in long-range planning," he said.
Indeed, as a result of strict zoning laws, Claremont has only one fast-food restaurant, a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet that the city inherited when it annexed some county land more than a decade ago.
A bedroom community, its large, well-kept homes are set along wide, tree-lined streets, many of which take their names from New England colleges and towns.