BELL — The City Council, struggling to cope with this small city's burgeoning population, last week agreed to consider a full-scale freeze on residential development for at least 45 days.
The council ordered its staff Monday night to draw up an ordinance that would temporarily halt building on all residential property so that city officials will have time to examine the effects of the city's growing population on city services, the school system and fire and police protection.
The council has the authority to extend the proposed 45-day moratorium another 10 months to conduct additional studies.
Councilman George Cole, who introduced the proposed anti-growth moratorium, argued that the city does not have sufficient power to control overcrowding. The council will consider the moratorium at its Dec. 19 meeting.
The council request came two weeks after it lifted a less restrictive freeze of apartment construction on residential lots containing single-family homes. The council backed down from that limited freeze in response to a barrage of criticism by property owners and local real estate developers.
Cole had complained about overcrowding but joined other council members in voting to lift the less-restrictive construction freeze. Last week, however, he proposed that the comprehensive moratorium be considered to give the city an opportunity to draft new laws restricting growth in the 2.8-square-mile city.
"People hold us responsible for the quality of life in the city," Cole told fellow council members in calling for the housing development ban. "We have to figure out ways . . . to preserve the quality of life in the city."
Although unanimously ordering staff to draft the proposed ordinance, some council members predicted that the decision could provoke the anger of some residents and local real estate developers.
'Going to Have Trouble'
"We're going have trouble with this," Councilman Jay B. Price said during the sparsely attended meeting. "If it was me (planning to develop residential property), I would bring a lawsuit (against the city)." Price was the only council member who argued against the proposed anti-development moratorium, but voted with the other members to direct staff to draft an ordinance.
City Administrator John Bramble said in a telephone interview after the meeting, "What this is going to do is put a complete moratorium on existing developed lots."
He added, however, that the proposed ordinance has not been drafted. He could not say what exemptions, if any, would be suggested.
In mid-November, more than 20 property owners and real estate developers converged on City Hall to protest the earlier moratorium against city officials' longstanding practice of approving construction of apartment buildings on lots with homes, in violation of the city's zoning law.
City officials who issued permits for property owners to build apartment buildings apparently were misinterpreting the zoning law, Bramble said. Property owners also persuaded the council to change the zoning ordinance to fit the traditional building practices.
None of those who protested the limited moratorium at the Nov. 14 meeting attended the last council meeting.
Hundreds of property owners have built 2- and 3-unit apartment complexes in their back yards to boost their monthly income and to provide financial security after retirement.
But several council members have complained that the wide-spread practice is having a negative effect on the city.
"It's been abundantly clear to us that the people in the community are growing increasingly concerned about density," said Councilman Rolf Janssen. "We need drastic action to take a look at ourselves."
The official population of Bell stands at 28,726, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Hall of Records said last week. That figure was last updated in July, 1987. But city officials suspect that the city's actual population is far higher, possibly by as much as 10,000.
The state figures the population of cities by multiplying the number of households in the city by 3.22, the state's average household size, the Hall of Records official said.
Bramble said that the state computation method does not take into consideration the growing Latino population in Bell. Many families, consisting mostly of recent immigrants, live with relatives who are settled in the city, thus doubling the number of household members.
"We know the population data is quite low," Bramble said, adding that uncontrolled development has contributed to population growth.
"The quality of life in the city is directly impacted by the intensity of development." Bramble said. "Right now we need to take a hard look at what 2025 is going to bring us." By that year, he said, the city's population could easily exceed 50,000 residents.
"That is going to make life very difficult for us all," Bramble said.
Janssen, a Gage Junior High teacher, said the school system is already overloaded and the various city services, such as trash, sewer and street maintenance, are operating at capacity.
"Bell High School is operating at 110% capacity," Janssen said. "We don't have enough parks. There's no place for the kids to play."