LA HABRA HEIGHTS — The issues shaping the local election--a road-widening and fire department management--belie this city's location. They seem more the concerns of a village in a drowsy slice of the state than the campaign topics of an affluent community enfolded in the Southern California metropolis.
But that is the way things are in La Habra Heights, a hilly bedroom community of about 5,700 residents who nurture its small-town flavor with studied determination.
Widening Is Inevitable
The proposed rebuilding of Hacienda Boulevard, the city's zigzagging main drag, is a source of argument that will not go away. With three pro-widening incumbents running for another four years on the City Council, the boulevard's future is the dominant theme of the election to fill three seats.
The incumbents, Charles Wolfarth, M. Jay Collins and Judith Hathaway, last fall voted with the rest of the council to soften Hacienda's two big curves and eventually expand the two-lane thoroughfare to four lanes. While all say they want to postpone the widening as long as possible, they insist that it is inevitable to handle the daily traffic that runs through the Heights to the wider world.
One of their challengers, Dr. John Wible agrees. Another, former city treasurer Ruth Morris, adamantly disagrees, and the other council hopeful, Teresa Crist, says the matter should be decided in a communitywide referendum vote.
The citizens group formed last year to fight the road project, Maintain Our Rural Lifestyle (MORL) is not endorsing any of the candidates, but the group is gathering signatures for a ballot initiative limiting the width of all local roads to two lanes. MORL is also collecting signatures for a second ballot item that would bar council members from holding office for more than two terms.
"I am against a four-lane highway," Morris, 61, said. "We just want to remain a sleepy little rural community and only progress as much as we have to." She contends that when council members approved the road project, "it seemed like they were deviating from everything we ever stood for."
At the same time, Morris, a retired securities trader, supports a ballot referendum on the road, contending that such an important decision should not be left to the council. Should MORL's signature drive succeed, the road vote would be scheduled later this year.
Crist, a 36-year-old homemaker making her first council run, says she is more concerned with how the project was approved than whether the boulevard is widened. She complains that the council has not paid sufficient attention to local sentiments, and she says the only way to settle such a crucial city issue is to let the entire city decide it in a referendum.
While Wible, 55, says he does not "want to see that four-lane road coming any sooner than it has to," he believes it eventually will be necessary to upgrade the road. "You can't stop progress in a growing community," said Wible, a local planning commissioner since 1984 and a physician who practices in La Habra.
Arguing that most Heights residents support the widening project, Wolfarth says the controversy is being blown out of proportion by those who want to make it an election issue. Council members say it is too dangerous and costly to let Hacienda remain a winding, two-lane road. Rebuilding it to meet state standards will reduce the accident rate and allow the city to turn the road over to the state, thus saving the city $25,000 to $30,000 in annual maintenance bills, they add.
The incumbents all cite the conditions that the council attached to the road project, which must be accepted and funded by the county to move ahead. Along with various stipulations intended to keep the boulevard as country-like as possible, the council said the four-lane widening cannot take place until the boulevard's daily traffic count increases from the current 21,000 cars to 28,000 cars. Another busy Heights thoroughfare, Fullerton Road, would have to be widened and upgraded before the Hacienda expansion occurs, under council conditions.
The matter of the volunteer fire department elicits a more unified response from council contenders than the road issue. All the candidates favor action to put department management on a more professional footing, and many of them say the city should hire a full-time chief. A Pasadena fireman has filled in as an acting, part-time chief for the past 10 months, but he does not want to continue in the job.
The candidates also generally agree that improvements are needed in the city's paramedic service, now provided by a private Whittier firm at no cost to the city. When the company answers calls, it charges patients, but local officials say the service is not always available when needed.
As an alternative, the city could contract for county paramedic service, or it could contract with a company to provide a unit that would always be on call for La Habra Heights.