BELL GARDENS — Hundreds of residents are fuming over a city Planning Commission decision to recommend major zoning changes that could force some property owners eventually to give up their homes or businesses.
Some residents threatened a bid to recall of the entire City Council unless it rejects the Planning Commission's recommendation.
Last Thursday, after a raucous six-hour meeting, the five planning commissioners voted unanimously to recommend adoption of the zoning changes that would drastically reduce the number of apartment buildings. The changes also would eradicate the haphazard mix of commercial, industrial and residential uses in neighborhoods throughout the city.
The final decision must be made by the City Council, which is expected to discuss the issue sometime in December or January. In the meantime, city officials are planning to hold several neighborhood meetings to explain the zoning changes, which would allow property owners 20 to 40 years to comply.
The Planning Commission's decision triggered howls of outrage from the estimated 400 residents and business owners who packed a city auditorium a week ago.
"Recall, recall, recall," about 100 people began chanting as they swarmed toward the stage where the planning commissioners sat.
"I hope this never happens to your grandchildren," a young girl said quietly to commission Chairwoman Maria Elena Alvarez, as Alvarez gathered her papers and prepared to leave the auditorium.
City leaders say that, in the long run, the proposed changes will make Bell Gardens a more desirable place to live--a city with less people, less traffic, better shopping areas and better services such as police and fire protection.
But many residents and business owners say they believe Bell Gardens is fine the way it is. Residents say the council wants to turn back the clock to a time when this was a quiet suburb of middle-class property owners even if it means driving out the current residents to do it.
By the latest census count, about 42,000 people live in Bell Gardens. Most are renters, and according to county data, the average per capita income is $5,405 a year.
"They don't care about us," said 19-year resident Zandra Juarez. "They are trying to run the poor people out of here and turn this into a Beverly Hills."
City officials said they are not picking on certain residents and are not trying to drive anyone out of town. Council members Douglas O'Leary and Robert Cunningham, as well as Planning Commission Chairwoman Alvarez, would be affected. Both O'Leary and Cunningham live in high-density areas that would become low-density areas. Cunningham said he eventually would have to convert or get rid of one of the houses on his property, and stands to lose $40,000. Alvarez's residence would be in a commercial zone.
"It's a terrible thing to go through," Alvarez said. "My two children were born and raised in that home. We own it. We put a lot of money into it. But at the same time, we have to think of the future of the city. We can't have a home in a commercial area."
At the meeting last week, Alvarez told a hostile and impatient audience that the commission members had mulled over the changes thoroughly, and "have been troubled by it." But residents said they felt that the Planning Commission had made its decision long before they sat down at the meeting last week.
"It doesn't matter what we say," one irate resident shouted at Alvarez. "It's what you guys want."
City officials have been planning for years to reduce the city's density, and clean up the mix of houses, businesses and industry in some neighborhoods.
According to the latest statistics from the county Department of Regional Planning, Bell Gardens is the fifth most crowded city in the county, with 15,700 residents per square mile. The city is approximately 2.4 square miles.
City Manager Claude Booker said the high density leads to more crime and overcrowded conditions, and strains the city's water and sewer systems.
In 1987, the city amended its General Plan--its map of what the city should be like in years to come--to include goals of reducing density, consolidating shopping areas, and ending mixed zoning that allowed businesses and homes to sit side by side, Booker said. According to state law, the city must now bring its zoning code in line with the General Plan.
Although city officials could change the General Plan, Booker said, "That is not an option." He said numerous city studies have concluded that density must be decreased.
People who live in the areas earmarked for zoning revisions would have 20 to 40 years to either move or convert the use of their buildings to comply with the new code. For example, a homeowner whose property would be changed to a commercial zone would have to move or convert the home to an office. A resident whose property would be changed from high density to lower density zoning could convert a four-apartment complex to two apartments.