SAN MARINO — It's one of the hottest issues, said one longtime San Marino resident, since 1973, when some liberal education activists tried to push a sex education program in the public schools.
This time it's a plan for a pair of new tennis courts in Lacy Park that has San Marino residents choosing up sides.
The San Marino Tennis Foundation, which manages the existing six courts in the northwest corner of the park, says it urgently needs more space to accommodate dozens of tennis buffs in town. Opponents say the construction proposal, which would require cutting down six trees, is a callous encroachment on public property by a private group.
Lacy Park is serious business in San Marino. It is the focus of the city's recreational life, the site of its celebrated annual Fourth of July parade and an object of great civic pride.
"Somebody said Lacy Park is like a walk in the mountains," said Millie Marder, chairwoman of the San Marino Garden Club. "We don't have to go to the mountains. We have them right in our own backyard."
The face-off in the wealthy community of terra cotta-topped homes and broad lawns is, so far, tense but civilized (unlike the sex-education debate, which had citizens dumping garbage on each other's lawns).
After a City Council meeting Wednesday night, for example, spokesmen for both sides spilled into the night, rasping contentiously against each other on the steps of City Hall.
Marder, who also heads the Committee to Save Lacy Park, zeroed right in on the tennis proponents.
They were exhibiting a blatant disregard for natural beauty, said Marder, standing toe to toe with Tennis Foundation President Michael Blaylock.
"If the Tennis Foundation has the money to build tennis courts," she demanded, "why don't they give our high school beautiful tennis courts rather than pouring more concrete on open park land?"
The Tennis Foundation president stifled his indignation.
"I'm for natural beauty, too," said Blaylock, whose group already has refurbished 10 tennis courts for the San Marino public schools. "I'm a member of the Sierra Club."
Passions are running high in San Marino, the fourth-wealthiest community in Los Angeles County. While paying tribute to the fervor that San Marinans exhibit on civic issues, Councilman Paul Crowley nevertheless reminded those attending the meeting that "we're not talking about an oil refinery, a freeway or a bordello."
The debate has been going on for months. While the Tennis Foundation has gone through a slow process of public hearings, studies, Planning Commission consideration and, finally, presentation to the City Council, the opposition has been gathering petitions.
Last Wednesday night, Marder submitted petitions bearing 873 signatures of property owners opposed to the new courts to the council .
But the issues seem to go beyond whether, as one resident put it, there should be the "constant bop-bop-bop of tennis balls in the park."
Violation of Covenant
Opponents say that having a "private club" in the park may be a violation of the covenant under which railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington donated the land to the city.
What's more, they say, some city councilmen considering the matter should disqualify themselves because they're members of the Tennis Foundation.
"It's a conflict of interest," insisted Marder, who called the extra courts unnecessary.
The Tennis Foundation, which denies that its members are in any way the recipients of special privileges, says it is actually making an improvement on a marginal section of the 27-acre park.
"It's an emotional issue with some ladies," said Allan Wolff, vice president of the foundation. "They're dear souls who are frustrated and excited and they exaggerate a little."
Lacy Park is a broad, green, sun-splashed meadow surrounded by a variety of lush shade trees. The park was designed 40 years ago by a horticulturist William Hertrich, and it has stood as a model for planners and landscapers ever since.
Up near the northwest corner, behind a stand of shrubs and tree, is a row of tennis courts, with a clubhouse in their midst. One afternoon last week, half a dozen women sat courtside, waiting for their children to finish a tennis lesson. One woman gestured scornfully toward the place, 20 feet away, where the new courts are proposed.
"I won't let my children run over there," she said. "It's an isolated, undeveloped area. I'd just as soon see it developed."
"It's certainly a no-green belt." another woman said.
It is an out-of-the-way spot, without the luster of the central area of the park. But a group of trees stands there nevertheless. The plan is to lay out the new tennis courts there, cutting down a cotter pine, a deodar, a Christmas berry tree, a strawberry tree and a pair of floss silk trees with vivid pink blossoms.