WHITTIER — The Whittier City Council has narrowly approved two exceptions to its moratorium on apartment and strip-mall construction--a decision that sharply divided the council between slow-growth and pro-business factions.
New council members Helen Rahder and Bob Henderson, who pushed for the initial building halt, said the council majority's decision Tuesday to allow developers to proceed with two projects defeats the purpose of the moratorium, which was to give the city time to develop higher construction standards.
"The reason we got elected was because the people in Whittier were tired of grossly inadequate and inappropriate high-density development in established residential neighborhoods," Rahder said later in the week after Tuesday's vote.
"The whole purpose of the moratorium was to put a stop to the type of development we had in the past. It just blows my mind these guys would come back."
In the April council election, most analysts agree, Henderson and Rahder benefited from a backlash of homeowners upset about a wave of apartment construction. Henderson and Rahder said during the campaign that they opposed the building of more strip malls until the city's design standards are improved.
At their urging, the entire council agreed to the moratorium.
At Tuesday's meeting, however, Mayor Thomas Sawyer and council members Myron Claxton and Robert Woehrmann sided with developers who said they had suffered enough delays already. Without requiring further design changes, the majority allowed developers to proceed with building a seven-unit apartment complex at 7608 Bright Ave. and a 10-unit commercial and residential building at 6502 Bright Ave.
"These projects could have been easily through the planning department," Claxton said later, "but some things held them up."
The council majority "felt they (the developers) had gone through enough and had been held up so long, that approval was the only fair thing to do," he said.
"I don't think we have to overrule the Planning Commission and Design Review Board every time something comes up," Claxton said. "We thought they deserved to go ahead with their projects. We're not giving blanket approval to everything."
Jeanne Muhlestein, a local real estate agent who plans to build the seven-unit complex with her husband and another partner, said the project "was within days of receiving a permit" when the moratorium took effect May 8.
"I just needed one more thing," she said, "a revised drainage plan. Because of that, I got stuck in the moratorium."
She said the moratorium had come as a shock: "I didn't know it was coming.
"I am not opposed to developing a standard and making things better, but these two council persons don't understand we've been in the process for a long time," she said, referring to council members Rahder and Henderson.
Muhlestein said she bought the Bright Avenue property in October, 1986, then spent more than two years clearing title to the tract. The architect began work in February, 1989. In September, the city's design-review panel said the blueprints did not comply with new, interim design standards for apartments. She submitted revised plans March 16, but the moratorium took effect before she received a construction permit.
Rahder said the council's decision to make exceptions to the moratorium sets a bad precedent, because several other developments are also entitled to review and possible exemption.
"We are having the moratorium because of projects like theirs that are not satisfactory to the community," she said. "By squeezing them in, we're defeating the whole purpose of the moratorium."
Since the earthquake in October, 1987, the city has issued permits to demolish more than 120 single-family homes. Most of these homes had been destroyed or damaged by the quake or sold to investors shortly thereafter. During the same period, the city issued permits to build more than 500 apartment units.
Rahder said the Muhlestein development, like much of the other new construction, lacks sufficient open space. She also wanted the number of apartments decreased by one to accommodate more parking and open area.
"That would not be a hardship to the developer," she said.
Muhlestein said the delay itself was a hardship: "They don't understand all the time and money spent. I think sometimes people think we buy plans at the corner store and submit them.
"We worked quite a while with the city. We felt a responsibility to the city, because Brighton is a very focal street."
She said three old, soon-to-be demolished small houses on her lot had become targets for vandalism during the moratorium.
"A few developers are throwing up boxes that don't have personality, just to make a buck, but there are also some very fine developers," Muhlestein said. "I want (the apartments) to be really nice."
She added that responsible developers have become wary of bringing their business to Whittier.