A Hermosa Beach group fighting for the preservation of a railroad right of way as parkland wants the city to sell its only vacant beachfront property to help finance the purchase.
The Open Space People’s Action Committee today is publishing its required legal notice of intention to circulate petitions to put an initiative on the June 7 ballot, committee chairwoman Rosamond Fogg said Wednesday.
If approved by voters, the initiative would mandate that the city sell the site of the former Biltmore Hotel and use all proceeds to help purchase the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway right of way that cuts through the center of town.
Fogg said the highest possible land value for the beachfront property would probably allow for residential development and would bring in about $5 million. The initiative also would give the city the option of trading the Biltmore site to Santa Fe for a comparable portion of the right of way.
The city has not had the Santa Fe land appraised. Santa Fe officials have said they would sell the 20-acre, 100-foot-wide strip to the city but want the land valued at its highest possible development. City officials have said they want the land valued as open space, but have indicated they would pay somewhat more.
In any sale or exchange, the proposed initiative directs the city to maintain mineral rights on the oceanfront property.
The initiative ties together two of the city’s biggest issues of the past couple of decades. Residents have overwhelmingly voiced their support for preservation of the right of way but have been divided over what to do with the Biltmore site.
The oceanfront site has been vacant for 18 years. Five elections have been held on various development proposals since 1972. The last, in 1985, was a referendum on the development agreement for a 250-room hotel. After two court battles--the first over whether the election could be held and the second over the results--the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled in November that the vote was a tie, meaning no hotel.
Proponents have appealed to the California Supreme Court, but few expect the high court to hear the case.
Willing to Put on Ballot
The open space committee needs about 1,200 signatures--10% of the city’s registered voters--to place the initiative on the June ballot. Fogg said, however, that she hopes the City Council will put the measure before the voters and eliminate the need to collect the signatures.
Councilmen Chuck Sheldon, Roger Creighton and Jim Rosenberger said they would be willing to put the measure on the ballot. Mayor Etta Simpson and Councilwoman June Williams could not be reached for comment.
In November, the committee persuaded voters to approve two initiatives regarding the right of way. The first, approved by 89.6% of the voters, requires the city to buy the right of way to preserve as open space. The second, approved by 53.1% of the voters, raised the utility users tax to 10% from 6% after city officials promised to use the $666,000 revenue to help purchase the right of way.
Despite the committee’s success in November, Fogg said she does not expect overwhelming support for the proposed measure because the Biltmore site has been so controversial.
“I don’t think there will be wholehearted approval for this initiative, to tell you the truth,” she said.
Sheldon said he would not support the initiative but would let voters decide. “I think it would deserve voter consideration, and I would be willing to put it on the ballot if something else that I was interested in was put on the ballot also.”
He said he would like to see another hotel proposal put on the ballot, preferably one similar to the project voted on in 1985 but with a more favorable deal for the city.
He estimated that rent from the property and the bed tax could generate about $1 million a year for the city, adding that the money could be used to help buy the right of way. “I think a million bucks a year for 35 years would be a much better deal for the city than four or five million at one time,” Sheldon said.
Fogg said she expected that the initiative would stimulate alternative proposals for the Biltmore site on the June ballot and said she welcomes them.
The open space committee wants the city to get as much cash as it can immediately, she said. Since the land has been vacant for so long, the city has demonstrated that it can get along without continuing revenue from the property, she said.
Once the voters decide what they want done with the property, Fogg said, “I don’t think anybody would really quarrel with the outcome.”