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To Grow or Not to Grow: Debate Gets Bigger : Builder, Monterey Park Await Court Ruling on Development

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Times Staff Writer

From the driver’s seat of his red Mercedes two-seater, Mark Jabin surveyed a rolling hillside in Monterey Park that has been the center of controversy for the last decade.

Yellowed from the heat of summer and barren save for a few squat palms, the hillside is where Jabin and his associates want to build a $35-million development of 101 single-family homes.

“It’s smoggy today, “ the Monterey Park attorney said. “But the view is usually beautiful.”

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The land, west of Atlantic Boulevard where it intersects Cadiz Street, directly overlooks the congestion of stores, shopping centers, houses and condominiums.

The 30-acre parcel is one of the last remaining undeveloped areas in this bedroom community.

But Jabin says it cannot successfully be developed because of a 1982 city ordinance. Without City Council approval, a single developer is restricted to no more than 20 of the 100 residential building allotments allowed each year.

The allotment system was enacted after voters in June, 1982, approved Proposition K, which called for the 100-unit annual limit.

Because of that restriction, Monterey Views, the developer concluded, would have to be built in a piecemeal fashion--and therefore financing could not be obtained.

So Monterey Views, whose principal partners are Jabin, his wife, Lelia, Frank Venti and Robert W. Chu, sued the city in 1984, contending that the allotments were unconstitutional.

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Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Paul Turner, who presided over a two-month trial that concluded in May, is expected to rule on the matter soon.

First heard in 1985, the suit was dismissed by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Irvine A. Shimer. The developers appealed and the state Court of Appeal determined that Monterey Views was entitled to a trial to determine the constitutionality of the housing cap and the degree to which the city was required to consider the law’s impact on surrounding communities.

The case represents one more piece in the emotional, political and legal puzzle of land use in Southern California.

“It’s really more important than just to the city,” Mark Jabin said. “It’s important in (fighting) the whole anti-growth movement which is sweeping from city to city to city.”

Attorneys for both sides say the case is among a handful that have gone to trial over what conditions must be present to enable a California city to enact a slow-growth ordinance.

“What this case is all about is whether cities can just arbitrarily prevent new housing construction,” said John Clark Brown Jr., a Los Angeles attorney representing the developer. In addition, Brown said, “there is no evidence that housing caps work because people move in anyway.”

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Councilwoman Betty Couch disagrees. “I’m not sure what this town would look like now if we had not passed Prop. K,” said Couch, who lives near the proposed development. Couch was a leader in the initiative drive seven years ago.

“I think the town would be far worse off if we had not fought so hard,” she said.

During the trial, the half-dozen witnesses and the 180 exhibits focused on a debate now familiar in a community that four months ago enacted its second year-long moratorium on residential construction.

The city’s law firm, Brown, Winfield & Canzoneri, argued that a majority of voters supported Proposition K because the city was becoming overcrowded because of unprecedented growth. In their briefs, the attorneys cited a condominium explosion in the 1970s.

Furthermore, the city’s attorneys said that land costs in Monterey Park and surrounding communities were driven up because of the housing demand fueled by developers marketing Monterey Park as the “Asian Beverly Hills.”

In another brief, the attorneys wrote: “Police and fire department budgets were strained, the city’s aging water and sewer systems were inadequate . . . local school districts experienced overcrowded classrooms and double sessions. Inflation hit hard at the city, while Proposition 13 limited the city’s ability to increase revenues.”

City officials say that those conditions made it legal for them to restrict housing.

But the developers’ attorneys, calling the housing ordinance bizarre, said there was no evidence to support the theory that the allotment system provided for orderly growth. Nor, they said, was there any evidence that the allotment approach gave city officials “breathing room” to plan for the city’s future.

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If Monterey Park wanted to relieve problems with traffic, schools, sewers and the water system, argued the developers’ attorneys, the city had other options, including the imposition of special fees on developers to finance civic improvements.

‘Worst of Both Worlds’

The attorneys disputed the city’s contention that Proposition K would give the city time to revise its general zoning plan, implement improvements for traffic and sewer problems, and upgrade standards for building designs.

But attorney Brown said in a brief that Proposition K reduced the availability of housing, which in turn caused “overcrowding, an unacceptably low vacancy rate, increased housing costs and has forced lower income citizens to live in substandard housing.”

“In short, Proposition K results in the worst of both worlds--a growing population with no way to accommodate it.”

Under the present system, 80 allotments can be awarded each year to projects with four units or more. The permits are allocated on the basis of a complicated competitive system, which gives points for certain design amenities. An additional 20 units are allotted to single-family houses, duplexes or triplexes on a first-come, first-served basis.

Did Not Apply

In theory, by 1992, when the housing limits are due to expire, all land available for residential construction under the current zoning plan would be built on, if all allotments have been awarded.

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But City Planner M. Margo Wheeler said about 220 allotments are available. The law allows for unused allotments to be carried over to the next year. The large number available partly relates to none being issued in 1986, after the city enacted its first building moratorium.

Monterey Views never applied for allotments for its project, Jabin said, because financial lenders wanted the developer to have city permission to build the entire project before granting an initial $4.5-million loan for grading and street construction.

The allotment system, and its complicated regulations, Jabin said, has resulted in developers being chased away from Monterey Park.

A central issue in the case turns on the fine points of a subsection of the state’s Evidence Code governing land use regulations.

Attorneys for the developers contend that state law requires the city to prove that enacting the ordinance was necessary to the health, safety and welfare of the city and surrounding communities.

The city’s attorneys argue that the municipality should not have to provide such proof, but if it does, it should only have to show that the ordinance is a reasonable response to the community’s problems.

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Racism Alleged

Another issue raised by the developers’ attorneys involves a charge of racism. They say the housing cap was aimed at stopping Asian immigration into the city where half of the residents are Asian, many of whom arrived in recent years.

Proposition K was a “virulent response” by the city’s “established, white middle class . . . to the growing Chinese influence,” Brown wrote in a brief. This response, Brown wrote, was typified by leaders of the Residents Assn. of Monterey Park, a homeowners group formed partly to fight development plans.

City officials discount this, as does Couch, one of the founders of the association.

“It’s never been racial,” the councilwoman said about the homeowners organization. The group has Asian members, some of whom were pictured on its campaign literature in support of Proposition K. A brochure quoted one Asian resident, Michael Chang, as saying the charge that Proposition K was meant to keep Asians out of Monterey Park was “nonsense.”

Fought Original Plans

Couch said the group’s efforts primarily were against the explosion of condominiums.

In fact, the organization that spawned the homeowners group, the Sequoia Park Homeowners Assn., first came to the forefront in successfully fighting Monterey Views’ original plans to develop a 150-condominium project.

“We were in support of more single-family homes,” Couch said.

She finds it ironic that the proposition the group wanted is now allegedly keeping a developer from building single-family homes.

The reason the allotment system favors condominium development, she said, is that it was devised by a City Council whose majority was against Proposition K. The council favored development and more condominiums were being built at the time than single-family homes, she said.

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72 Homes Sold

Ten years ago, however, Monterey Views built 72 single-family homes and sold most of them to Asian immigrants.

Recently, Mark Jabin drove on the winding roads around the proposed project site and where his company built the homes.

“We’re sensitive to the criticism of our neighbors,” said Jabin, who lives near the project site. “We’re not outside developers just coming in to take advantage of Monterey Park.”

Despite what Judge Turner may rule, Jabin made a prediction: “Whether they are from Asia or wherever, people are going to come here, if there is adequate housing or not.”

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