Donna Palmer walked out of the La Habra Heights City Council chambers before the roll call was finished on a vote to rebuild Hacienda Boulevard, unwilling to listen to one "yes" after another.
"I came home crying," recalled Palmer, a 15-year resident of this hill community who views the road proposal as the enemy of what she most cherishes about La Habra Heights: its country spirit. "I just personally think it will divide the Heights, and I believe it will ruin it," she said.
Last week's unanimous council approval of a plan to straighten Hacienda Boulevard's major curves and eventually widen the winding, two-lane street to four lanes has, if anything, kicked up more dust around an issue that has aroused strong emotions on both sides for months.
Leaders of Maintain Our Rural Lifestyle (MORL), a group formed in September to fight plans to widen the road, say they will make every effort to gather enough signatures to force a vote on the issue at next April's council election. And the controversy is fast shaping up as the issue of the spring council races, when three incumbents will be up for reelection.
"We're going to do whatever we have to (in order to) stop that project," said Elmer Brackett, MORL founder. "We just don't want a four-lane freeway shoved down our throats."
Council members say the rebuilding is vital to improving an outdated road that is by far the most dangerous in the city and a never-ending source of accidents for the 21,000 cars that daily navigate its twists and turns. "There wasn't much choice. . . . You can't allow the dangerous conditions to exist," Councilman Charles Wolfarth said.
Said Councilwoman Judith Hathaway: "You can't depend on a road that was designed in 1927 to meet the needs of today."
Last week's approval was the first of many needed by the project, which will have to be accepted and funded by the county to move ahead. City officials have said it will be at least five years before construction begins.
Council members say they responded to opponents' complaints by adding a number of conditions intended to preserve Hacienda Boulevard's rural flavor: The road would not be widened to four lanes until the daily traffic count climbed to 28,000 cars, and the additional two lanes would not be opened until another Heights thoroughfare, Fullerton Road, had been widened and upgraded in conjunction with a new housing development planned for a site east of the city.
Other conditions are that the boulevard's shoulders remain unpaved, median strips be planted with native species and the crest of the hill at Skyline Drive and Hacienda Boulevard be shaved by no more than 15 feet.
Citing the stipulations, Councilman Gene Beckman said, "I do not at all accept the opposition's allegations that (the improvements) will disrupt the rural nature of our city."
Along with safety concerns, Beckman said, his approval was based on financial considerations. The project would upgrade the boulevard to state standards, allowing the city to turn it over to the state and thus rid itself of $25,000 to $30,000 in annual maintenance costs. Rebuilding to state standards would also qualify the project for county funding.
"I don't believe the community should, or could, pay for the improvements to the road when 90% of the traffic is regional," Beckman said.
Opponents contend that a straightened, wider Hacienda Boulevard will only encourage more commuters to travel through the Heights on Hacienda, one of five routes slicing through the Puente Hills and connecting the San Gabriel Valley with southeast portions of the county.
"The residents who live here, live here for a reason. They wanted to move out of the city. And here we're having the city brought to us," MORL's Brackett said.
His group concedes that safety improvements have to be made on Hacienda, but they favor a much more modest, city-financed straightening of the road's two big curves and retention of two lanes.
But at a crowded City Council meeting two weeks ago, supporters of the widening proposal argued that a scaled-down reconstruction would be little more than a Band-Aid, simply postponing a major rebuilding. Several longtime residents also said it was folly to think that the city can fend off out-of-towners by keeping Hacienda narrow and twisting.
"There is no way you can stop it unless you say, 'No more people in California,' " declared one woman, who said she has watched Hacienda's traffic grow since her move to the Heights in 1950.
Councilwoman Hathaway points to the city's General Plan as an indication that, for more than a decade, the city has accepted Hacienda's widening as inevitable. The plan, written in 1973, includes discussion of rebuilding the boulevard to a four-lane right of way.
Furthermore, council members cite a recent communitywide survey in which a majority of the 630 residents who responded said they favored a four-lane road.