A proposed hillside development ordinance, intended to preserve the rural character of the foothills north of Sierra Madre, has instead created a major political rift.
The conflict surfaced again last week when nearly 200 people jammed City Hall chambers to criticize the City Council for what they saw as an attempt to weaken the ordinance.
At odds are many of the town's residents who want strict development controls and half a dozen hillside property owners who believe that the ordinance would unfairly confiscate their land to create a nature preserve for the city.
The fracas has embroiled the mayor and two City Council members facing reelection next year. Mayor Bruce Crow and council members Clem Bartolai and Lisa Fowler--whose seats will be contested in the next election--say they have been told that their political futures hinge on the way they vote on the ordinance. Already, the three have been labeled pro-development by many Sierra Madre residents who are furious with modifications in the ordinance proposed by the council.
Those modifications were reviewed at last week's council meeting. Many residents accused the council of weakening the ordinance to please hillside property owners, an accusation that finally prompted Bartolai to protest.
"I feel it's unfortunate that the council has to defend itself in the conduct of its business," Bartolai said. "I'm no different than the guy who puts on fire boots and runs to a fire. I do this as a public service. I'm not a politician and it's not an ego thing."
The original ordinance, devised after 18 months of work by the city's Planning Commission, is one of the strictest in Los Angeles County. It proposed the creation of five hillside zones to run vertically across the foothills.
The proposed densities of the original ordinance varied according to altitude and zone. Above 1,200 feet, one house per 40 acres would be allowed. Below 1,200 feet, depending on the zone, one house per 40, 20, 10 or 5 acres would be allowed.
The ordinance would have exempted lots already legally subdivided and homes in dense Sierra Madre Canyon. Among other provisions were a height limit of 20 feet and a one-story limit on new construction.
The council, after a public hearing in September, revised the ordinance to create just three zones, running horizontally across the hills. Proposed densities were changed to one house per 40 acres in the top zone, one house per 10 acres in the middle band and one house per 15,000 square feet in the lowest zone, which is the density now allowed on that part of the hills.
The changes were criticized by many speakers at last week's meeting, who said that the revised ordinance would allow over-development of the hillsides.
"Instead of 80 homes allowed, you are permitting over 200 homes," said Jan Maddox, who characterized herself as the only hillside property owner in favor of the much-stricter Planning Commission ordinance.
Other speakers said development on the hillside would be dangerous because of the risk of fires, floods from rainwater runoff and landslides. Many mentioned the Sierra Madre earthquake fault that runs through the mountain.
Other property owners who spoke were uniformly opposed to the ordinance, both in its original and revised forms.
"I do not think it is moral to confiscate a person's private property, which has been in my family since 1923, without just compensation," said John Bowman, a hillside property owner.
Father John DeVany, an administrator of the 65-acre Passionist Fathers retreat, objected to the ordinance because, although the church has no plans to develop its land, the value of the property as an asset would be reduced.
The council referred the ordinance back to the Planning Commission for further study and asked that the commission obtain advice from a geologist or other expert on the ordinance.