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New Council Majority Takes a Softer Line on Growth : Monterey Park: Three new council members say they are just helping property owners unfairly penalized by the city's strict zoning rules. But slow-growth forces are nervous.


MONTEREY PARK — Signaling a change from their predecessors' slow-growth posture, members of the new City Council majority have, in a string of recent decisions, exempted homeowners and builders from strict development rules.

The three new council members elected in April--Marie Purvis, Fred Balderrama and Samuel Kiang--say they are simply helping property owners unfairly hit by the slow-growth measures passed by previous city councils.

"We are hopefully righting the wrongs of the past," Kiang said.

But the trend is rattling the nerves of slow-growth advocates in Monterey Park, who say the new council is rolling back hard-earned progress in curbing development in a rapidly growing city.

"My stomach is turning," said Councilwoman Betty Couch, who opposes relaxing any building laws. "Even though there was rudeness and arguing with the other council, there were high standards."

In recent months, the City Council has voted to:

Permit a homeowner, Tina Martin, to continue using her garage on South Orange Avenue as a second unit, which is prohibited by city zoning codes.

Allow a bank owner, Anthony P. Lee, to build a two-story building on West Garvey Avenue in an area where it otherwise would be prohibited under voter-approved zoning codes developed by the previous council.

Allow resident Radimiro S. Medina to build a room above his garage on West Fernfield Drive that would exceed the maximum height allowed by the city.

City officials say such projects probably wouldn't have been approved by the previous council, which was dominated by slow-growth activists who made sweeping changes in Monterey Park's development laws.

Led by Barry L. Hatch, Patricia Reichenberger and Chris Houseman, the council in 1986 and 1987 imposed moratoriums on apartment and condominium construction and commercial development while they developed the stricter height, parking and lot size requirements that are now city law. They also spearheaded a major overhaul of the city's commercial districts to discourage piecemeal development. The plan was approved by the voters in October, 1987.

In April, Balderrama, Kiang and Purvis were swept into office, replacing Hatch and Reichenberger, who were defeated, and Houseman, who decided not to run. The three new members joined Mayor Judy Chu and Councilwoman Couch, who were elected in 1988.

It could not be determined exactly how many zoning decisions have been made by the council since the new members took office, but City Planning Director M. Margo Wheeler said there have been a dozen requests for building code exemptions this year.

Couch criticized the new council's more lenient stance on growth issues, accusing the three new members of being pro-developer. "They want construction," she said. "They want business."

Chu said she was elected on a controlled-growth platform, but added: "There were times in the past where the council was overzealous and as a result (building) restrictions were very, very difficult for the community." This year Chu has voted for some of the exemptions and opposed others.

Balderrama said it was necessary in previous years to put the brakes on runaway construction. But he also said the city shouldn't chase away developers with sound ideas.

As an example, Balderrama cited Standard Savings Bank, which was unable to build a two-story building because the area was rezoned for retail uses in 1987 under a voter-approved redevelopment plan.

The Planning Commission refused to exempt the bank from the zoning rules, and Lee, the owner, appealed to the City Council. Last Tuesday the council allowed the construction after Lee promised to pay the city an unspecified sum of money equal to the sales taxes a retail store would have generated.

In addition, at least one new council member has come out in favor of exempting a major residential project from any future laws designed to cut down on so-called "mansionization."

The council is considering such an ordinance, which was first proposed in 1988 under the previous council.

Balderrama, however, said the proposed Monterey Views development--86 single-family homes to be built on the city's last chunk of vacant residential land--would suffer financially if the developer had to reduce the size of the homes to comply with such a law. So far, the City Council hasn't decided whether to approve the project.

The prospect of exempting the project from new size restrictions sparked verbal protests from some members of a slow-growth group, the Residents Assn. of Monterey Park. The group's president, Irv Gilman, warned that the city would be setting a new precedent.

"The floodgates are open," Gilman said such an exemption would signal developers. "Come to Monterey Park and build it any way you want."

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