Initiatives May Put Fate of Golf Course in Hands of Voters

Times Staff Writer

A 2-year-old battle over the fate of the Azusa Greens Golf Course may be settled at the ballot box.

Two initiative petitions--one that would rezone the course to allow construction of homes and a business park and another that would require the city to buy the course for $26 million--may force a special election later this year.

The petitions were filed in City Hall last week by groups led by Azusa Greens owner Johnny Johnson, who instigated the initiative drives after his efforts to develop the site failed to get city approval.

Giving a Choice

"I'm giving residents a choice," said Johnson, who has been trying to convince the city to approve a zoning change for two years. Johnson has maintained that the city should buy the course if a zoning change is not approved.

City Clerk Adolph Solis said an election probably could be scheduled for late September or early October if the county registrar-recorder verifies that the petitions have sufficient valid signatures.

In the meantime, a third initiative petition that would prohibit either development or sale of the golf course is being circulated by a citizens group that wants to keep the course.

If the Citizens Committee to Save Azusa Greens gets enough voter signatures this month, all three measures could be placed on the same ballot, Solis said.

Solis said each measure would ask for a yes or no vote, and the one receiving the greatest number of yes votes would win.

Unique Situation

"To tell the truth, I've never seen anything like this," Solis said.

Each of the Johnson-led initiatives has 3,500 signatures, according to Toni Wessell, whose Los Angeles-based public relations firm conducted the petition drive. Initiatives require the signatures of 1,877 registered voters--15% of Azusa's 12,512 voters--to qualify for the ballot.

Charles Wilkes, chairman of the Action Committee to Save Azusa Greens, said volunteers have collected about 900 signatures on the petition opposing development of the course.

"We're in no hurry to get it all done" before August, Wilkes said, making it unlikely that all three measures could appear on the same ballot.

The controversy started when Johnson proposed building 1,540 town houses, condominiums and apartments and some commercial and industrial buildings on the 115 acres, including the golf course, that he has owned since 1964.

Major Attraction

Neighbors protested that the golf course in the city's northwest corner is the area's major attraction and the reason they bought their homes.

Johnson later withdrew his proposal after 4,217 protesters signed petitions to prohibit development, claiming that the plan would overload city streets and utilities with 4,300 new residents.

When Johnson presented a revised plan with fewer homes a year later, the City Council was prohibited from voting because of possible conflicts of interest. Four of the five council members owned property within 2,000 feet of the golf course.

In January, Johnson and the Action Committee to Save Azusa Greens submitted rival ballot measures, but the council refused to call an election, suggesting they use the initiative process.

Johnson's latest development plan calls for 1,000 single-family units and a commercial park.

Losing Money

Johnson said he is losing money on the golf course, but would not say how much. He said that if the zoning change is not approved, he must sell the course.

His $26-million price tag, which amounts to $226,000 an acre, "is the least I would sell it to the city for," he said.

"Not a Profitable Venture"

"Golf courses are not a profitable venture," he said. "The only way you could make any money would be if someone gave you the land and the water."

Azusa Greens, he said, has a monthly water bill of about $16,000 and costs between $750,000 and $1 million a year to maintain.

One of his initiatives would require the city to issue general obligation bonds for the purchase of the golf course.

Acting City Manager Julio Fuentes said the initiative does not spell out conditions of the bond sale. But if the bonds were sold at 10% interest to be paid off in 20 years, Fuentes said the cost to the city would be about $3 million a year.

"It would be very, very difficult for the city's general fund to assume that liability," Fuentes said, since the costs would come out of an annual city budget of about $12 million.

Insufficient Income

Fuentes said the golf course might generate $350,000 in annual income, far short of the amount needed to cover the bond debt service.

The course and adjoining land were valued at $19 million in an appraisal by Landauer Associates Inc. of Santa Ana last year that was based on the assumption that the land would be rezoned.

Johnson said the appraisal was based on his first development plan that proposed town homes and fewer single-family units than his more recent plan. The most recent plan makes the land more valuable, Johnson said.

Wilkes disputes the assessments of the golf course's worth. He said the Committee to Save Azusa Greens "just wants to maintain the golf course as it is, period."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World