Hermosa Beach Rallying 'Round a Strip of Open Space

Times Staff Writer

The Santa Fe Railway right of way, which divides Hermosa Beach, seems to be unifying residents who rarely agree on city issues. Their cause is preservation of the right of way as open space and defeat of the railroad's plans to develop it.

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway has not formally asked the city to approve a development project for the 20-acre, 100-foot-wide strip. But more than a year ago it took the first step toward a large-scale commercial and residential development there when it requested drastic changes in the city's general plan and zoning for the land.

The strip now has a jogging path and exercise course, parking space and landscaped, grassy stretches. Railroad officials said they are willing to sell the property to the city so that it can be maintained as a park.

But the railroad wants "fair-market value" for the land, which one executive defined as its value if it was developed to its maximum potential--meaning it wouldn't come cheap.

The City Council voted late last month to negotiate with Santa Fe, but city officials said the price should be based on the lower value of the strip as open space. Regardless of the price, they said, residents would have to pay most of the cost through increased taxes--something Hermosa voters have seldom approved.

Negotiations for the right of way have not begun, however, and the city still is considering Santa Fe's requests for general plan and zoning amendments.

The railroad has released a "sample development," including a 96-unit motel, 170 house or apartment units and just under 70,000 square feet of commercial space. But railroad officials say they are not committed to such a project. City leaders say the railroad could seek a much larger development under the requested zoning changes.

Tuesday, the Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on an environmental impact report analyzing the effects of the proposed zoning and general plan changes on density, traffic and other environmental factors.

Planning Director Mike Schubach emphasized that discussion will be limited to the accuracy and completeness of the environmental report, and not cover the merits of the proposed changes or possible development.

City officials and residents have already criticized the report, saying it is based on a much smaller development than would be permitted under the changes and is incomplete. The report was prepared by a city consultant hired at Santa Fe's expense.

"I think it stinks," said Chuck Sheldon, chairman of the Planning Commission.

The Planning Commission and the City Council have until July 27 to certify the environmental report, but such a step is unlikely, officials said, unless drastic changes are made. Likewise, the requested changes in the general plan and zoning cannot be approved unless the environmental report is certified.

Schubach said the city has been trying unsuccessfully since December to get Sanchez Talarico Associates, the firm that prepared the report, to correct problems in the document.

Fred Talarico, owner of the consulting firm, declined to comment.

City officials believe that if Santa Fe's requests for zoning and general plan amendments are denied, the issue will end up in a lengthy and costly legal battle. Only last week, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that cities must compensate property owners when zoning decisions drastically restrict property owners from developing their land.

Santa Fe filed a $15-million lawsuit against the city after the City Council designated the right of way as open space in the general plan in 1982, complaining that the move reduced the value of the land.

Santa Fe, which officially abandoned the unprofitable rail line about four years ago, dropped the lawsuit shortly before it was scheduled to go to trial, deciding instead to try to get the city to modify its restrictions on use of the land.

If several residents, including former Councilman Gary Brutsch, have their way, the City Council will lose the power to change the general plan's designation of the right of way as open space--or to change the open space designation of any property--without voter approval.

Brutsch's group is circulating petitions to place such an initiative before the voters, probably in the spring.

Rosamond Fogg, chairman of the Open Space People's Action Committee, a citizen group, said members will begin circulating petitions within a few weeks to place another initiative on the ballot. It would ask voters to force the city to negotiate a price for the right of way and then raise the funds to pay for it.

Although the City Council is moving in this direction, she said, the group believes that negotiations should have begun long ago.

Fogg said the committee, which has scheduled a fund-raiser Monday night at a yogurt shop in Hermosa Beach, was formed to fight any development plans for the right of way and to keep the community informed of the status of the issue. "I guess I'm sort of testing the theory that people can make a difference," said Fogg.

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