Local Elections : All Roads in La Habra Heights Lead to Key Council Issue

Times Staff Writer

To some in this rural community, roads are a necessary evil, the link to an urban world they left behind to settle in the Puente Hills.

Privacy is the prized commodity here, the reason most residents put up with a lack of sewers, long commutes and the roads. Forty-one miles of asphalt wind through the city, much of it narrow, two-lane roadbeds worn thin by age, weather and use.

Maintaining those roads has become an issue in the April 8 City Council election.

A year ago, a citizen's advisory group concluded that a third of the roads in La Habra Heights needed major reconstruction. To repair the roads, the group estimated that it would cost nearly $1.4 million, a hefty price tag considering the city's annual budget is roughly the same amount. Since the group's report, the city has repaved about 14 miles of roads, mostly using state gasoline tax money.

But a large chunk of road work remains. And although the four candidates running for two council seats agree that more road repairs are needed, they are at odds over how to pay for future road improvements.

Seeking Third Terms

Incumbents Gene W. Beckman and Jean Good--elected to the council when the city incorporated in 1978--are seeking third terms. The challengers are Robert Keith and Claudelle West.

Keith, an executive with Sully Miller Contracting Co., supports a special bond election to raise road money.

Beckman, an attorney, and Good, an administrative aide to Assemblyman Wayne Grishman (R-Norwalk), said that the city should exhaust state and federal revenue sources before levying a local tax for road repairs through an assessment district or bond election. One source, Good said, might be tidelands money, funds the state collects from oil companies for offshore drilling.

And West, a housewife and member of the advisory group on roads, said a special commission made up of residents should determine how to finance road repairs.

"Whatever direction the council takes, it must be done quickly, because some roads in this city are in very poor condition," said West, 44, who moved to town in 1981 and quickly became embroiled in a dispute over establishing a network of horse trails throughout the hillside community.

West opposed a council plan requiring homeowners to grant easements for the trails as part of the approval process for building permits. The council plan was easily defeated by many of the city's 5,000 residents in a special election.

Pegged by Horse Enthusiasts

Because of her role in the dispute, West said she was unfairly pegged by the horsy set as an outsider who does not appreciate or want to preserve the city's rural life style.

"The issue three years ago was simply private property rights," she said. "We moved here for the same peace and quiet others said I was against . . . . I want to protect the beauty of this area."

Spread across 6.2 square miles, the city is almost entirely residential with horse stables, citrus and avocado groves and a few vegetable farms. It is a wealthy community, where homes sell for as much as $600,000 and up.

As Beckman says, the city is an anomaly, "a rural outpost only 30 minutes from downtown Los Angeles."

But as in the big city, there is rush-hour traffic, and it now threatens the city's country character.

Two major north-south thoroughfares--Hacienda Boulevard and Fullerton Road--pass through the city as they cut across the Puente Hills. Both are two lanes and both are heavily traveled, particularly by morning and evening commuters. An estimated 22,000 vehicles a day use Hacienda Boulevard, while approximately 16,500 cars and trucks travel Fullerton Road.

More Than 400 Accidents

As a result, traffic accidents in the city have increased dramatically, according to city records. In 1970, there were about 220 to 230 accidents, most of them on Hacienda or Fullerton Road. Last year, the number jumped to over 400.

"Those roads, particularly Hacienda, place a tremendous burden on a community this size," said City Manager Robert G. Gutierrez. "There are maintenance and safety concerns."

All of the candidates oppose any plans to widen Hacienda Boulevard and Fullerton Road because it might pave the way for new development in the area.

But within five years, city officials say pressure will build for the realigning and widening of Fullerton Road, possibly to four lanes, because of a major housing development planned for unincorporated county land northeast of La Habra Heights. County officials say that any approval of the project is contingent on the builder widening the road that will skirt the development.

Beckman, 58, believes that if Fullerton Road is widened, traffic on Hacienda Boulevard on the city's west side will stabilize or decrease.

"I don't think anybody wants to see Hacienda widened," said Beckman, who settled in La Habra Heights in the mid-1960s. "It needs to be straightened, but not widened."

County Assistance

Currently, the city maintains both Hacienda and Fullerton Road with county assistance. Any attempt by the county to widen either road would need city approval, Gutierrez said.

Good believes that widening Hacienda might encourage more development and traffic. "It would open the Heights to all kinds of trouble," she said. "It would send a definite message to developers wanting more access to build here."

Currently, all new homes must be built on a minimum of one acre, a restriction adopted at the time of incorporation to control the amount and type of development in the city.

Keith, 49, a resident of the city since 1979, said that widening Hacienda would pave the way for more truck traffic.

'A Super Highway'

"Add a couple of lanes and that road would become a super highway with all kinds of heavy truck traffic," he said. "It's bad enough without big rigs traveling it."

Like in other nearby cities, the cost of running for the council is going up in La Habra Heights.

Four years ago, Beckman said, he spent about $75 to mail out a few letters to friends and neighbors urging them to vote. This year, Beckman said, the race will cost between $2,000 and $2,500. West expects to spend no more than $3,000, while Good said her campaign will run between $1,500 and $2,000. Keith said his election expenses will be about $500.

Council members receive a stipend of $1 a month.

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