SAN GABRIEL — Under pressure from anti-growth advocates, the City Council has set a Sept. 22 special election to decide the fate of a zoning change that would permit construction of a controversial Valley Boulevard hotel complex.
Citizens for Responsible Development, a grass-roots group attempting to control the city's building boom, had collected more than 2,600 signatures in its effort to force a ballot referendum on the project, planned for the 11.5-acre site of the former Edwards Drive-In Theater.
The petition gave council members the choice of either setting the special election or rescinding the zoning change they had approved earlier this year to clear the way for the development.
"Personally, I don't think there was anything different now than what we approved (originally)," Mayor Janis Cohen said. "But I think it is appropriate that we put this matter before the voters and put it to rest once and for all."
A spokesman for the developer said he was pleased that council members did not rescind the zoning change themselves. He accused opponents of using the project as a "whipping boy" for their concerns about other development issues in the city.
"Our project has come to assume an importance out of proportion of what it really is," said Carl Schiermeyer, spokesman for Alethea Hsu, the Monterey Park doctor who wants to develop the old theater site. "We happened to come along at an unfortunate time. We do not believe the citizens of San Gabriel are really upset at the concept of real nice commercial development."
Critics of the project, however, said it would flood Valley Boulevard with traffic without servicing the needs of the community.
"It just wasn't thought through good enough," said John Tapp, a local accountant and one of the citizens group's leaders. "And when the deficiencies were brought to their attention, they didn't really make an effort to change any of their plans."
The furor surrounding the hotel project comes in the midst of a heated debate over the city's overall growth, which, critics say, has been marked by frequent traffic jams, overburdened city services and reckless condominium construction that often places hastily built apartment complexes beside tidy one-family homes.
The city has responded by imposing tight restrictions on multi-unit buildings, including landscaping and setback requirements and limits on the number of units that can be built. After hearing continued complaints, the council this week extended a moratorium on motel construction from 45 days to 10 1/2 months.
But it was the hotel complex, which will include a restaurant and an estimated 220,000 square feet of commercial space, that ignited the anti-growth uproar.
In March, a crowd of about 150 packed a City Council meeting in protest, demanding that officials reject the zoning variance that the plan would require. In an emotional outpouring, the residents claimed that the resulting traffic and multistory construction would ruin their quiet, residential life style.
But, in April, the council unanimously approved the hotel complex, which is expected to bring $450,000 a year into the city's coffers.
Unwilling to accept defeat, the citizens group began collecting signatures to force a referendum.
Attorneys for the developer argued at Tuesday's meeting that the referendum would be illegal because the city's general plan calls for the land to be zoned for planned commercial development, as it is under the hotel project.
If the zoning change is rejected, the attorneys said, the land would revert to its former amalgam of residential and commercial zoning, making it inconsistent with the general plan.
City officials acknowledged a possible legal conflict, but said the issue should be decided by the courts, not the council.