SAN GABRIEL — Ask Charles Martinet if the moratorium measure will pass in next Tuesday's special election and he takes a little straw poll of his own.
"Let's see," he says, looking up and down his Walnut Street block of neat one-family homes. "I know Bill across the street is for it. Bob here, next door--he's for it. I don't know about the Corderos over there."
Martinet himself is unquestionably for it. In fact, he's a "radical" on the subject, he says. "This is a real quiet community, not expensive at all," he says, gesturing with the screwdriver he has been using to fiddle with his doorbell. "Everywhere they're putting in these condos and multiple units. Why? It's the money. That's what ruins everything--money."
Limits on Business
Though Martinet will vote an emphatic yes on the ballot measure, which would impose a one-year moratorium on virtually all new development in the city, he won't get much of an argument from a lot of no voters. Though many of them are just as dissatisfied as he by the dizzying pace of development in San Gabriel, they are worried about money too.
"I just think they're on the wrong track," says Dick O'Donnell, president of a local Buick dealership, a confirmed opponent of the resident-initiated measure. "The lifeblood of the community is ongoing businesses. If businesses are not free to expand, that will certainly impede progress. With dwindling sales taxes and the loss of businesses, we're going to have a heck of a time getting adequate police and fire protection. The money's got to come from someplace."
Tuesday's vote on the moratorium may not end the long, rancorous public debate on development that has rattled the city, but it is the first time that San Gabriel's 12,991 voters will formally express themselves on the subject.
The measure, initiated by the grass-roots Citizens for Responsible Development, would put a one-year stop on all new commercial or multiunit residential construction and would ban any expansion project that increased the size of an existing structure by more than 100 square feet. Developers could continue to build single-family houses.
According to leaders of the group, which collected the signatures of about 2,500 voters to get the measure on the ballot, the idea is to give the city a chance to reassess its present "concrete-happy" development strategy.
"We need to stop the building permits for a year, so there's absolutely no pressure on the council or the Planning Commission to grant variances," said the group's chairman, Greg O'Sullivan. "Without that pressure, they can concentrate their full efforts on the planned growth of the city."
According to O'Sullivan and other leaders, a building boom has been ruining their once-tranquil community. Single-family homes have been bulldozed to make way for condominium complexes, mom-and-pop stores have been replaced by strip malls and once-quiet streets are jammed with traffic.
Glum city officials, who are united in their opposition to the measure, are virtually conceding defeat in the election. "It's a very emotional issue," said Mayor Janis Cohen. "If emotional issues pass easily, then I would assume that this one will pass, too."
"Everyone feels that the thing will carry overwhelmingly, setting the stage for whatever legal action develops," added another city official, who asked that his name be withheld.
The proposal to put a damper on rapid development has already prompted a defensive City Council to adopt a set of new restrictions on construction, putting new limits on the number of apartments that can be built on given plots of land. The new building code is too little and too late, say the dissidents.
The measure has resulted in some acrid discussion about an on-again, off-again debate, with two council members first agreeing to debate the issue in a public forum, then backing out.
But mostly it has spawned a lot of talk about the legal implications of the measure. Opponents, including all five City Council members and the city attorney, say that it could put San Gabriel in an untenable legal situation by dictating that property owners could not develop their property.
There is a distinct possibility, Cohen says, that the city, which is in the throes of budgetary difficulties, could be hit with a lawsuit or two from property owners thwarted in their development plans. "Clearly, if there's a large lawsuit, we could be in deep, deep trouble," she went on. "We're already into our reserves this year."
Supreme Court Ruling