BALDWIN PARK — For months, a controversy over land use along the San Bernardino Freeway has been waged between city leaders trying to dress up their "front window" and landowner trying to stop what they believe is a rampant land-grab by the city.
A ballot measure in the Nov. 4 election may settle the dispute.
Measure F asks for a "yes" or "no" vote on the Sierra Vista Redevelopment Project, Baldwin Park's sixth and largest Community Redevelopment Agency project area that covers two miles of freeway frontage.
Despite fervent opposition, which arose when the City Council approved the project last summer, both opponents and proponents of redevelopment are conducting low-key campaigns on tight budgets.
Attract New Business
City officials want to improve the decaying freeway frontage to attract big new businesses that would replace Baldwin Park's hodgepodge of small buildings, many of them deteriorating, along the freeway.
They hope the prime commercial land someday will compare favorably to that in neighboring West Covina, where retail malls and office buildings abut the freeway.
Petitioning to qualify the initiative for the November ballot began in July, after the council adopted the project over protests from hundreds of area residents.
After several stormy public hearings, the council voted to exclude 1,500 homes from the original project area, but the action did little to assuage the fears of those who thought their homes were might be jeopardized by what they called "encroaching redevelopment."
City officials are uncertain now many homes will be demolished.
The plan's proponents say that even more important than image is the money the city would collect through increased retail sales taxes.
Opponents say the redevelopment agency's powers of eminent domain could lead to condemnation of property in the Sierra Vista project area. They say private enterprise can and should upgrade the area without government intercession.
Baldwin Park has five other redevelopment projects that have received little opposition, including one on vacant land that fronts on the freeway.
Developments in Progress
A shopping center and 200-room hotel are under construction at the intersection of Puente Avenue and the San Bernardino Freeway. The Community Development Agency also is developing business and residential sections in the heart of town, one of which will include a new community center. Two industrial parks are under construction in the north part of town.
John Hemer, director of Housing and Community Development, said that if voters approve Measure F, the agency immediately will begin negotiating with developers to build retail stores.
He said many property owners are eager to sell at fair market price, and only the redevelopment agency has the ability to assemble properties and clear the land for development.
Hemer said that if the measure is defeated, the freeway frontage land will remain as is.
Under terms of the project, the Community Redevelopment Agency will float bonds for as much as $200 million to help finance both commercial and industrial development. Hemer said one large retail store would raise enough money to allow the city to eliminate its utility tax, the source of another controversy.
Frank Ramirez, chairman of the Baldwin Park Homeowners' Group that seeks a "no" vote on Measure F, called city government "a real estate agent" that has "created lots of turmoil in the city. It's just gotten too far," he said.
The homeowners' group has received about $1,000 in donations that has been spent on flyers and signs, according to Frank Lovejoy, who headed the petition drive.
The group has a 90-minute video that was filmed at public hearings when residents argued against the Sierra Vista Project. The film has been shown frequently to audiences as large as 65 and as small as 5.
$4,000 in Donations
Frank Fitzgerald, a member of the Baldwin Park Planning Commission who heads the measure's support group, the Baldwin Park Residents Assn., said it has collected $4,000 in donations and has spent most of the money on pamphlets and mailings to registered voters.
Fitzgerald claimed that some of Measure F's biggest supporters are people who live in the Sierra Vista area.
"I would hope we could win big and put this behind us," he said.
He noted that most of the leaders opposing redevelopment are also heading an attempt to recall three members of the City Council.
Lovejoy and Herschel Keyser, who lead a group called Concerned Citizens for Better Government, are circulating petitions to recall Mayor Jack White and Councilmen Leo King and Robert McNeill.
They said they began the recall effort after the council's approval of the utility tax last year, and the council's approval of the Sierra Vista project has given their drive added incentive.
Seeking Special Election
Keyser said the petitions must have signatures of at least 10% of Baldwin Park's 15,806 registered voters by Tuesday, the deadline for filing with the city clerk's office. A special election could be held next year if the petitions qualify, Keyser said.
Keyser said his group will not try to oust Councilman Rick Gibson but will oppose his reelection next year and that it supports Councilman Bobbie Izell.