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City May Curtail Park Access for Non-Residents


ARCADIA — After temporarily closing Wilderness Park on weekends last month, the Arcadia City Council will decide Tuesday whether to limit park access to non-Arcadians because residents have complained about overcrowding and crime.

At an Aug. 10 study session, the council majority voted to immediately close the park on weekends, and, following a suggestion by Councilman George W. Fasching, limit weekend use to Arcadia residents or groups only on a reservation basis.

Other suggestions included redefining the area as a nature preserve, as opposed to a park, in an effort to discourage casual picnickers and emphasize the natural history and educational aspects there.

Amid concerns that prohibiting non-residents may be illegal, however, Arcadia Recreation Director Jerry Collins said he will recommend a fee scale to the council Tuesday that is higher for non-residents than residents. There has never been a charge for use of the park.

The council's study session decision came after two years of complaints by residents in the affluent Highland Oaks neighborhood which borders the park, who said overuse has spawned traffic congestion, fire hazards, drinking, drugs and gang activity.

The allegations have irked other Arcadians and non-Arcadians alike who say problems are minimal and contend that residents are merely uncomfortable with the predominantly Latino park-goers who flock to the nature preserve on weekends from other San Gabriel Valley cities.

Residents of El Monte, Alhambra and Monrovia visiting the park on a recent Wednesday to play in the stream that flows from Santa Anita Dam and relax in the shade called the proposed weekend privileges for Arcadians unfair.

"I go to a lot of parks, and this is the one I like the most because of the river and the mountains. It's different than any other park," said Josie Ruiz, 38, of El Monte, who has been visiting Wilderness Park for about a year with her five children, ages 3 through 12.

"It's a public park. I don't think it's fair for the people to be doing that. If those residents want to own the park, that's different."

If the city closes the park to non-residents "they can't call it Wilderness Park anymore. They should call it Bias Park," said Bill Schifflet, 23, of Monrovia, who has been coming to the park for 10 years. "I was taught to believe everybody was created equal, not just Arcadians."

If the city decides to charge entrance fees, they should be the same for everybody, he added.

Highland Oaks residents who neighbor the park, however, said the flocks of park-goers have created traffic congestion, drink beer and smoke marijuana, and whistle at the young girls in the neighborhood. One resident said he heard gunshots one evening, and another said some neighbors recently had their bikes stolen.

The wild and isolated nature of the park, etched with secluded hiking trails, encourages lawlessness, they said.

"We've lost control, as Arcadians, of Wilderness Park," said Chris Mead, 41, who moved five doors down from the park entrance three years ago with her husband and two young daughters.

"I've heard we've been accused that it's a racial thing. Well, my concern is not families using the park, or one guy who's going up there to eat his lunch. It's just when you see a whole carload of guys going up there," she said. "I don't think there would be as much of a problem if they knew the park was controlled and patrolled."

Other residents who have argued for controls in the park also said the measures were not meant to be discriminatory.

"We encourage families to use it, and to use the nature center. It's the misuse of the park that has the residents concerned, and the increased traffic, and the catcalls and the empty beer cans that end up in someone's bushes," said Jeff Howe, a member of the Highland Oaks Homeowners Assn.

Howe added that some people have tried to poach deer in the park with bows and arrows, and said nearby residents worry about graffiti and feel that there is a growing gang presence there.

"It's isolated, and that's one of the problems. And yes, there have been gang people up here. I know that they are, by their appearance," Howe said.

Drinking, drugs and crime, however, have not been a problem, Collins said, although the park has become particularly crowded on weekends, especially over the past two months.

"Everybody loves the park but nobody wants it next door to them," Collins said. "The truth of the matter is there were no major problems. There was the normal type of drinking in the park, and a few conflicts, but that really wasn't the problem. It's more a concern with overcrowding and fire danger."

At the study session, Police Capt. David Hinig recommended closing the park on weekends to all residents because of overcrowding and increased fire hazards when park-goers fan out onto surrounding county and national forest service property.

The incidents of drinking and drugs are "nominal," and comparable to any other park, Hinig said.

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