TORRANCE — Amid accusations of improprieties, the City Council overruled a Planning Commission recommendation and voted to follow a staff proposal to rezone a surplus drainage sump so that 52 town houses can be built on the 4.5-acre site.
Opponents said the city should have followed the commission's recommendation to rezone the land, designated for public use as a sump, for light manufacturing in accordance with the city's general plan. The opponents also accused the city staff of deciding in favor of the town houses before council action, not because town homes were the best use but because the city could get $700,00 more for land zoned residential.
Council members denounced the accusations as rumors and gossip. Along with city officials, they denied they had made up their minds before the meeting Tuesday.
Both opponents and proponents of town houses said noise would be a problem because the site is next to a light manufacturing zone. Opponents said that the town houses would be next to an engine-testing facility. Residents of a nearby town house development built within the last two years said they favored more housing rather than more noisy manufacturing operations.
The staff recommendation said more town houses would be an appropriate buffer zone to existing manufacturing. Mayor Katy Geissert said that whichever use was chosen for the land, it would be incompatible with adjoining land use. "Frankly, it is a mess," she said.
The proposed sale of the surplus sump, in the 4200 block of Spencer Street in the city's northwest corner, has been complicated because the city sought proposals before deciding what the zoning should be.
City Atty. Stanley Remelmeyer said at the meeting that the council should decide the zoning before marketing the land it further.
The accusations that the city staff had decided in favor of town houses were presented to the council by Kattorney Kevin C. Stapleton and Velko Miletich. Miletich and former racing car driver Parnelli Jones own a facility for making race cars and boats on land next to the sump.
Miletich, who wanted to buy the city land to build offices, said in an interview that he learned during a meeting with Geissert on Sept. 4 that his architect, Dan Withee, had begun working on competing plans to build town homes. "That is when smoke began coming out of my ears," he said.
Miletich said he demanded an explanation in a call to Withee. He said he was told that Assistant City Manager Albert Ng had informed the architect that the light manufacturing proposals had been ruled out because they were not the high bids.
Withee confirmed in an interview that he did a sketch for a town house proposal for Ramm & Associates of Santa Monica but denied any conflict of interest. He said he would not comment about whether he had talked to Ng, and Ng denied talking to the architect.
Miletich said he also heard that light manufacturing had been ruled out in a conversation with former Torrance Mayor Ken Miller, a real estate agent who represents Milner Development Corp., one of the prospective town home developers.
Miller said he had learned that the staff was going to recommend town house zoning and told this to Miletich, but he denied that he had said the decision was final, because of pending council action. "It is the greatest miscommunication you can think of," Miller said.
Tainted Process Charged
"If (the accusations are) found to be accurate, such activities paint a picture of a process tainted with impropriety and unfairness," attorney Stapleton told the council.
"It leads one to believe that if one offers enough money to buy surplus city property, getting the zoning changed to be compatible with the use desired by the big money can be achieved with the assistance of employees of the city. It appears that . . . despite the determination of the general plan as to the land use for a particular area, this too can be changed if the price is right."
Ng said in an interview that the city had received four proposals--two for multi-unit residential buildings and two for light manufacturing projects.
He acknowledged that he informed the City Council in executive session that the city would receive $2.7 million if it sold the land for one of the residential projects but only $2 million for a manufacturing project.
But he denied that he had made any decision favoring that project and denied speaking to the architect. Council members also denied allegations that they decided in favor of town houses before Tuesday's meeting.
'Rumors and Gossip'
Councilman William Applegate denounced Stapleton for bringing "rumors and gossip" to the council.
Applegate said he had heard a few hours earlier about another developer who was interested in the land for manufacturing and proposed that the city delay action on a motion by Councilman Mark Wirth to zone the land for town houses. Applegate said he wanted a delay so the city could get more proposals.
Applegate's motion failed on a 3-3 tie vote, with council members George Nakano and Dee Hardison joining him in favor and Geissert, Wirth and Tim Mock opposed. Councilman Dan Walker was absent.
The motion to rezone the land for town houses passed 5 to 1, with Applegate opposed.
The council directed Ng to seek additional proposals for town houses.
The sump, which was used for flood control, was declared surplus after the city expanded its network of storm drains. Proceeds from its sale will be divided between the parks department and repayment to the capital account for its original acquisition costs.