Seek to Control Growth : Diamond Bar Voters Take Another Look at Cityhood

Times Staff Writer

For more than a year, a group of homeowners in this unincorporated community negotiated with a developer who wanted to build a nine-screen movie theater at the local shopping center.

Finally, an agreement was reached: The residents would not oppose the project if the theater's parking lot did not have an entrance on Fountain Springs Road, a main artery through the Heritage housing tract. Although this change left the shopping center with only one entrance, the Diamond Bar Municipal Advisory Council (MAC) gave its approval to the compromise and all parties seemed satisfied.

But earlier this month, the county Regional Planning Commission overruled the agreement, finding that the cinema complex needed more than one entrance. The commissioners said they were not bound by the agreement between residents and the developer. The residents felt cheated.

"We felt if we made these agreements with the developer, they would be adhered to or at least listened to and discussed," said Ivan Nyal, president of the Heritage Tract Homeowners Assn. "We're still in shock as to why they would ignore our most important concern."

Need for Control

By itself, the cinema controversy may just be another disagreement over development. But those who favor the incorporation of this community of 70,000 see it as another example of the need for local control. Cityhood proponents claim that county officials are divorced from the concerns of residents and are permitting once-bucolic Diamond Bar to become overdeveloped.

"They don't have to live with the effects of their decisions," said Phyllis Papen, president of the Diamond Bar Improvement Assn. "They make a decision and they go home."

Planning Commission Chairman Lee Strong said the commission would like to satisfy the concerns of residents, but not at the expense of prudent planning policy.

"We make planning decisions based on our judgment as to what the best plan is that we can put in down there," Strong said. "We didn't ignore the neighbors. We understood what they wanted. We just didn't think it was viable. We listen to neighbors, but neighbors are not always the most objective observers."

In another decision that has fueled the incorporation movement, the Regional Planning Commission unanimously approved a zoning change last month that paved the way for construction of a 160-unit apartment complex, despite objections from residents and the Municipal Advisory Committee that Diamond Bar is already glutted with high-density housing.

'See the Need'

"People now see the need (for incorporation)," said Municipal Advisory Committee member Dan Buffington. "They're seeing our community being overbuilt, and they're seeing that we don't have any control over it."

Strong said he did not want to be drawn into the debate over cityhood, but rejected the assertion that county planning commissioners are out of touch with the communities they regulate.

"I think we listen to those people as much as any city council would," Strong said.

Diamond Bar residents rejected cityhood in November, 1983, by a margin of 230 votes out of 6,696 cast. But Gary Werner, chairman of the Incorporation '88 Committee, is convinced that there is a new consensus in the community.

"The people here in Diamond Bar have awakened," Werner said. "They have come to the realization that staying under county control may not be in the best interests of the community."

Papen said the city's burgeoning growth has forced Diamond Bar residents to come to grips with the issue of local control.

"People who worked to oppose the incorporation in 1983 have become involved in zoning issues," she said. "They're seeing the traffic problems and the overdevelopment. They have become very aware of the issues the community is facing."

Entering the final month of their six-month petition drive, cityhood proponents have collected more than 3,300 signatures, Werner said. The committee will need to submit 4,722 valid signatures--one-fourth of the registered voters in Diamond Bar--to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) by Jan. 7 to begin the process of incorporation.

File Application

If enough valid signatures are collected, cityhood advocates must file an application for incorporation, including a map of the proposed city boundaries, said Ruth Bonnell of LAFCO. The county staff will then conduct a feasibility study to determine whether the community's tax base is sufficient to cover the cost of providing city services, Bonnell said.

After a series of public hearings, the application for cityhood must be approved by LAFCO and by the county Board of Supervisors. If the application does not encounter significant opposition, a ballot measure could go before Diamond Bar voters in November, Bonnell said.

Getting the voters' approval will be the easiest step, according to cityhood proponents.

"I would say the biggest problem is getting it on the ballot," Buffington said. "I think once it gets on the ballot, I feel very strongly that it would pass."

Although no significant opposition to incorporation has emerged so far, Werner said it would be premature to presume victory.

"At the same point in the campaign five years ago, there seemed to be strong support for cityhood," he said. "It wasn't until after the ballot measure had qualified that it encountered opposition."

Paul Horcher of the Municipal Advisory Committee also has his doubts. Although Horcher--who ran during the last incorporation election for the provisional City Council--favors cityhood, he senses wariness in the community.

'Lukewarm About It'

"I think the community's ambivalent, lukewarm about it," Horcher said. "They have reservations about adding another level of government and bureaucracy. Most people just associate more government with more taxes."

There is general agreement that voters' concern that cityhood would mean higher property taxes killed the incorporation measure in 1983.

"The general economy was really down, really depressed," Werner said. "There was just a general mood that this was not the time to get involved with anything that could lead to increased property taxes."

However, cityhood proponents say such opposition can be countered through an effective information campaign.

"The fears of increased taxes are just that--fears," Werner said. "The city could only increase taxes with the approval of the voters."

Nyal, who opposed cityhood in 1983 but is now publicity director for the incorporation drive, agreed.

"I, for one, voted no on incorporation simply because I did not know enough about it at the time," he said.

Another source of concern among Diamond Bar residents is that the community may lack an adequate tax base to be an independent city. Less than 5% of the land in this bedroom community is zoned for commercial or industrial use.

A study conducted by Cal Poly Pomona researchers indicated that in fiscal 1988, a hypothetical city of Diamond Bar would take in $7.2 million in revenue and spend $5.7 million to provide city services. However, Werner warned that the county staff might not make such an optimistic assessment.

"It's difficult to predict revenues and costs," he said. "We are all anxious to see what the county finds in terms of fiscal viability."

Campaign Donations

Horcher is also dubious of the support developers have traditionally given to incorporation efforts. During the 1983 election, developers contributed more than $30,000 to the cityhood campaign.

Horcher recalled a joke a developer told him during that campaign.

"He said that the reason developers are pushing cityhood is that it's easier to buy three councilmen than (to buy) three supervisors," Horcher said. "His tongue was in his cheek, but I'm not sure whether he was half serious."

But as Caterpillars chew up Diamond Bar property that was once grazed only by horses, even skeptics such as Horcher see the current incorporation drive as a do-or-die solution for controlling the community's growth.

"What L. A. County is trying to do is jam a 100,000 (population) city in a 50,000 space," Horcher said. "The dream of country living has been bastardized. . . . I hate to say it's too late, but it's pretty late in the game for Diamond Bar. Ideally, the town should have incorporated 10 years ago."

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