Fifteen years ago, Sherry Passmore was reborn as a crusader. It happened suddenly, like a religious conversion.
A friend told the young Arcadia housewife about an elderly neighbor whose house was going to be demolished as part of a redevelopment project. "I thought maybe the city needed her house because they were widening her street," says Passmore. "I didn't really understand what redevelopment was."
When she learned that the old woman's neighborhood had been targeted as the site for a shopping center, Passmore was astounded.
"This was America," she says now. "Things like that weren't supposed to happen here. In America, you have the right to live where you want to, without having to move because somebody wants to build a commercial center there."
Passmore leaped into the battle, meeting with homeowners, schooling herself on redevelopment law, challenging city officials and ultimately helping to save the condemned homes of more than 400 Arcadia residents. That was her baptism by fire.
Impelled by a simmering sense of outrage, Passmore hasn't stopped since. By now, this tall woman with honey-colored hair and an aristocratic nose has fought development-minded cities from Imperial Beach to Placerville, hounded legislators through the halls of the Capitol in Sacramento and developed a reputation among San Gabriel Valley developers as the hired gun of the slow-growth movement.
"Her main role in life is to harass people," groused one prominent redevelopment official, asking that his name be withheld.
Passmore, a co-leader of Citizens Action Network, a coalition of about 40 slow-growth groups in Los Angeles and Orange counties, has been a plaintiff in anti-development class action suits, lobbied for legislation to reform redevelopment laws, debated building industry spokesmen in public forums and helped slow-growth groups organize.
But nowadays she seeks to keep a low profile in most of the dozens of community battles she participates in.
Having been through the process so many times, she has a feel for the peculiar psychological spin of a development battle, she says.
"There's anger, indignation, fear, panic," says Passmore, who frequently serves as a consultant to beleaguered homeowner groups, often charging a fee to cover expenses. "People say, 'This really can't happen, can it?' "
Her first task is to convince people that they can resist, she says. "There's a tendency to say, 'Why bother? We might as well sell out.' "
Then, using expertise on redevelopment that she has acquired from college courses and her numerous battles, she spells out a plan of action, challenging local politicians, making sure that redevelopment agencies meticulously follow the law in condemnation proceedings.
Passmore's success rate has been high. In the San Gabriel Valley, she has, among many other things:
Led the resistance to large-scale expansion of redevelopment of her hometown of Arcadia.
Helped organize homeowners in Baldwin Park to resist the Sierra Vista redevelopment project (ultimately approved by the voters in a scaled-down version, though the project is being challenged in court).
Served as technical adviser to Rosemead homeowners fighting condemnation of their homes by the Alhambra school district.
Helped put together successful lawsuits challenging designations of blighted areas in South Pasadena and Pasadena.
Now she is working with a group of 21 Temple City homeowners and their neighbors, resisting a possible eminent-domain seizure of their homes to build another retail center on Rosemead Boulevard.
"She's a shoulder to lean on," said Roberta Hoffman, one of the Temple City homeowners' leaders. "She knows what she's talking about."
But her opponents say Passmore's principal weapon is obfuscation.
'Riles People Up'
One attorney who represents redevelopment agencies complained that she doesn't understand how the process works and "riles people up."
An official of a statewide redevelopment organization tells about debating her once: "She started right out by saying, 'Don't let these people lead you astray. They're going to condemn your homes. They tell you they'll give you market value for them, but that doesn't mean anything.' She went on and on."
But those who oppose redevelopment insist that is exactly what has happened when "blighted" areas were targeted for redevelopment.
"She (Passmore) has a layman's expertise," says Christopher Sutton, a Pasadena lawyer who has represented many homeowner groups. "She understands practical outcomes. Maybe she's not an expert on the history or the legalities. But she understands how, in these projects, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the middle-class get eliminated."
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