LONG BEACH — Stanley Green was perturbed that the city might one day take some of his Belmont Heights back yard to widen an alley. Karen Pilcher worried that her Rose Park neighbors would build rental units behind their bungalows.
Both Green and Pilcher decided to do something about their concerns. They each banded together with like-minded neighbors, mounting carefully planned lobbying campaigns to change city law.
And they both got their way. The City Council recently outlawed second units in Pilcher's neighborhood and is exempting residential areas such as Green's from alley-widening requirements.
Their stories are but two examples of the political influence of Long Beach's many neighborhood groups. More numerous and effective than ever before, they are subtly shaping the council's agenda and winning far more battles than they lose, according to city officials and community activists.
In the past two years, the presence of neighborhood organizations has been particularly felt on the slow-growth front, where they have persuaded the council to lower zoning densities in one part of the city after another.
In a community where council members are elected by district rather than citywide, the local groups represent what no politician can ignore with impunity: well-organized voters in his or her own back yard.
"If push comes to shove, I can do without money, but I can't do without the homeowners," said 9th District Councilman Warren Harwood, who meets monthly with leaders of the North Long Beach Neighborhood Assn. At election time, he noted, neighborhood groups "can make an almost overwhelming difference if they believe the neighborhood is threatened--and you're the threat or the protection."
Some even argue that such groups hold too great a sway over the council and the Planning Commission, turning policy setters into followers who cater to the demands of small bands of voters, oblivious to the city's greater needs.
Referring to some public officials, former Planning Commissioner Richard Gaylord complained: "Whether or not they think it's the right thing to do, they go along" with the groups' demands.
Protect Status Quo
"It's really the ward politics of the 1900s revisited," one official asserted, saying the neighborhood campaigns are too often motivated by self-interest and a desire to protect the status quo. He and others repeatedly say the trend of lowering residential density limits will ultimately restrict the availability of housing and hurt future residents.
Such observations notwithstanding, the neighborhood groups are generally perceived as having a salutary effect. "I think they're very good," said 8th District Councilman Jeffrey A. Kellogg, who so laments the absence of active groups in his district that he is trying to start some.
"We work with (city officials). It's a power base for them, too," observed Dan Cangro, the workaholic leader of the Wrigley Assn., a high-energy group that has embraced a number of local causes and projects since it was revived in the Wrigley area in 1987.
Neighborhood groups are hardly new to Long Beach, a city of 55 neighborhoods distinct enough to merit names. The Naples Improvement Assn., for instance, has been around for 40 years. Because they invariably spring up in areas of single-family homes, the groups are typically made up of middle-class residents.
While some groups endure for decades, many others live and die with the issues that breed them. "Usually whatever they want is to protect what they've got," said Paul Schmidt, a political science professor at Cal State Long Beach who teaches local government courses. If the threat disappears, he said, the group can, too.
The city's size and character have helped make it a fertile ground for local groups. With a population of about 400,000, Long Beach is large enough to need them yet small enough to let them have a voice. Residential areas abut industrial areas, spawning the sort of land-use conflicts that spur community activists into action.
Long Beach's switch to districtwide council elections in 1976 greatly enhanced the groups' role, and the development pressures of recent years have galvanized neighborhoods whose spokesmen have become regular players at council meetings.
"The whole runaway building situation . . . that's what got all the people up in arms," said Sid Solomon of Long Beach Area Citizens Involved (LBACI), a 14-year-old, communitywide political group. "I've seen a lot of new neighborhood groups coming to the council."
Mayor Ernie Kell, who spent more than a decade on the council, said the influence of local groups "has drastically increased. . . . They show up en masse and they've been very effective."
25 Active Groups
Solomon estimates that there are about 25 active neighborhood organizations in the city. Bob Roxby, who is helping organize a citywide coalition of neighborhood associations, counts about 17 that have formal bylaws.