SIERRA MADRE — Ross Tyree ignored the steam coming out of his overheated Mercury Cougar, ignored the stench of hot metal and the gas gauge pointing to empty.
"The red light's not on yet," he said as he urged the car around another bend in the hills above Sierra Madre.
Only after he'd taken his visitors past the "glass pyramid" house, past the Willis acreage, past the 95-year-old Wisteria Vine and past the house he'd nearly condemned as Planning Commission chairman, only then did Tyree finally pull back down to level ground.
"This little town, I love it," he said. "I love it."
While other men write songs to the city they love, Tyree has written a strict new hillside protection ordinance that is possibly the toughest of any city along the San Gabriel Mountains foothills.
If adopted by the City Council, the ordinance would radically reduce the density of development permitted in the hills. At present, one house per 15,000 square feet is allowed.
The hillside ordinance would divide the hills into five zones and impose new acreage requirements ranging from five to 40 acres per house. Structures would also be limited to one story with a maximum height of 20 feet.
The ordinance is unique among foothill cities that have devised hillside ordinances.
Such cities as Pasadena, Duarte and Glendora apply a density formula based on the slope of the land. Generally, land with a 50% slope requires five acres per house.
Azusa's hillside zoning allows one house per 10,000 to 20,000 square feet. Monrovia has divided its hillsides into four areas with development standards for each. Generally, acre lots are required. One acre equals 43,560 square feet.
Only La Canada Flintridge imposes a zone system, like that proposed in Sierra Madre, but the zones are less restrictive, allowing one-acre and five-acre lots depending on which zone the parcel is in.
Sierra Madre's restrictive proposal sits well with many of its 10,800 residents who asked for changes in the city's hillside regulations after watching development and rock quarrying in the adjacent foothills.
The Gold Hill development in Monrovia, a rock quarrying operation that cut into the hillsides of Azusa, and Arcadia's Tudor-styled, Whispering Pines development that residents now call "monster homes," all fueled Tyree and others.
"The biggest goal is to prevent the face of the mountain from being scarred up with splotches of big houses on the face and access roads," he said.
Tyree, a retired Lockheed Corp. vice president and Sierra Madre native, worked with the six other Planning Commission members for more than a year to devise Sierra Madre's ordinance. The commission, which he heads, held public hearings on the ordinance before it was forwarded to the council for final approval.
"I looked at the hillside ordinances of Glendora and Monrovia. They were like nothing to me," Tyree said. "But we wanted it strict."
Sierra Madre is able to propose such strict measures because most of its hillside area is not yet subdivided. Most of the land is raw acreage and not carved into lots, except for Sierra Madre Canyon, a dense residential area that began as a resort area in the 1920s.
Converted Tourist Cabins
The canyon is thickly settled, dotted with converted tourist cabins, many of which sit on tiny lots 25 feet by 100 feet. Some houses are perched so close to the twisting, narrow streets that drivers can reach out and touch the walls as they drive by.
But the rest of the mountain is nearly void of development. At night, from the Foothill Freeway, lights from mountainside homes in neighboring cities glow in the foothills. But only blackness resides in the hills above Sierra Madre.
The situation is different in cities, such as Pasadena, where foothills were developed earlier.
"There are areas that were subdivided into lots in the 1920s and at that time there were no minimum areas," city planner Mildred De La Cuba said. "But we recognize them as legally recorded lots."
Sierra Madre's lack of prior development could be the result of geography. Whereas other foothill cities sit on land that slopes gently upward until reaching the foothills, the hills above Sierra Madre are steep.
Tyree believes this steepness prevented development for years but may no longer be effective.
"The biggest thing that has changed in the last 10 or 20 years is the technology of building," he said. "You can walk up to a steep cliff now and build a house. Builders know how to do it."
So Sierra Madre needs a strict, prohibitive code, Tyree said.
Petitions of Support
Many of the town's residents share his feelings. At a council hearing on the ordinance Tuesday, petitions of support containing more than 1,500 signatures were presented.
However, even foothill property owners who believe hillside protection is necessary said Tuesday that the ordinance goes too far.
Hillside property owner Jan Maddox, who bought 40 acres behind her home to prevent development, praised the ordinance and gave her total support, despite her calling it confiscatory.