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ELECTIONS / LA VERNE : Plot Thickens in Vote on Movie Theater


A site is being graded on Foothill Boulevard for a 12-screen, 2,950-seat movie theater, but whether construction proceeds may depend on a measure on the April 14 ballot.

Or maybe, it won't.

The situation is confusing, city officials say, because there is no way to predict with certainty whether a ballot measure that asks voters to limit theaters to 1,000 seats will apply to a theater that is in the early stages of construction.

If voters give their approval, the measure will become effective May 1. If substantial construction has occurred before then, said City Atty. Robert L. Kress, the owner will have "vested rights" to complete the project.

But, Kress said, how much construction must be completed to put the project beyond reach of the ballot measure is uncertain. He said courts have decided this sort of issue on a case-by-case basis.

Opponents of the project say they will seek a court order to stop construction if work continues after the measure is passed.

James Edwards Sr., head of the Edwards Theatres Circuit Inc., which is building the theater, said construction work has been slowed by rains, but he expects to achieve vested rights before the election. Nevertheless, if the measure is passed, he said, the issue will probably wind up in a "horrendous court case."

Edwards said 1,000 seats, which would permit a four-screen theater, are not enough to make the project financially feasible. He said the theater won't be built if it must be that small. "There's no way we or anybody else would do it," he said.

But project opponents insist that another theater chain could be found to build a smaller theater. There is no movie house in La Verne now.

The issue is on the municipal ballot as Measure O. Voters also will elect two council members from a field of three candidates and decide whether to give Mayor Jon Harry Blickenstaff another two-year term. Blickenstaff is unopposed.

In the council race, Dan Harden, a history teacher and track and football coach at Bonita High School, is challenging two incumbents, Thomas R. Harvey, a professor of educational management at the University of La Verne, and Craig H. Walters, a television producer.

Harden, 43, past president of the Bonita Unified Teachers Assn., is building his campaign on the theme that it's time for change. Walters has been in office 14 years and Harvey eight years.

"We've seen these faces for a long time," Harden said. "Active progress is dependent on new energy."

Walters, 36, who was first elected to the council in 1978 when he was a 22-year-old student at Cal Poly Pomona, said he may have been on the council a long time, but he hasn't run out of new ideas. La Verne has achieved a reputation for innovation, he said, citing, for example, the recent adoption of a four-day workweek at City Hall to save money. "Being stable doesn't mean being lethargic," he said.

Walters is a writer and producer whose credits include documentaries, television specials for evangelist Billy Graham and corporate promotional videos. He has been a leader in historic preservation efforts in La Verne and has worked to improve communications between the city and homeowner groups.

Harvey, 46, said voters shouldn't replace incumbents just for the sake of change. "Experience counts for something," he said. "An uninformed face is fresh, but is that what you want?"

The city is facing some tough issues, including a fight to persuade the state to build the Foothill Freeway through La Verne below ground level, Harvey said. "It's no time for amateur hour."

Walters and Harvey strongly support the construction of the proposed Edwards Cinema Plaza. Harden said he will follow the wishes expressed by voters on Measure O, but that the council should have resolved this long-running controversy by submitting the issue to voters earlier.

The theater project has been a source of controversy for nearly four years, and it was the main issue two years ago in the mayoral election when Blickenstaff, a school principal, decisively defeated flooring contractor David Sardeson.

Blickenstaff and Sardeson are still battling over the issue. Blickenstaff is chairman of the committee against Measure O, and Sardeson is one of its leading proponents, as a member of the Small Town Preservation Committee.

Sardeson said the project, which includes two restaurants as well as the theater, will add to the city's traffic congestion, attract "unsavory elements" and increase crime. He said a project of this size goes against the city's declared intention to maintain its "small-town virtues."

Another opponent of the project, Donald Robert Zschoche, said a 3,000-seat theater is unnecessary for a city whose population is less than 31,000. "We don't need 10% of the city at the theater every night," he said.

But supporters of the project say that a 3,000-seat theater is not large by today's standards. Movie houses as large or larger are operated by Edwards in Azusa and Rancho Cucamonga and by General Cinema at the Montclair Plaza.

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