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South Pasadena Considering Tax to Fight Freeway

Times Staff Writer

At the urging of a group of residents, the City Council is considering a tax measure that would create a “war chest” to fight state plans to complete the Long Beach Freeway along Meridian Avenue, the route favored by the state Department of Transportation.

A citizens committee proposed at Wednesday’s council meeting that the city impose a one-time assessment of 1% or 2% to raise between $200,000 and $300,000, the expected cost of a legal challenge to the controversial freeway project.

Council Vote Nears

The tax would have to be approved by two-thirds of the voters in a special election. The council will decide on the measure at its next meeting on Dec. 2.

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“We cannot afford not to do it,” insisted Margaret Wallace, a spokeswoman for the Westerly Route Committee, a group that is pressing to change the freeway route to bypass the center of town.

The freeway plan, which would connect the Long Beach Freeway with the Pasadena and Foothill freeways, would displace about 3,000 residents and remove 24 businesses. It would also, in effect, split South Pasadena in half, critics say.

Council members and residents, increasingly restive as the city’s 25-year fight to stop the freeway seems at last to be coming to a conclusion, contend that there is little time left for the city to act. “The freeway situation has been put on what they (Caltrans) call ‘the fast track,’ ” said Councilwoman Evelyn Fierro, urging prompt action on the special tax.

Three weeks ago, Caltrans presented to federal and state agencies a final environmental impact statement on the $425-million plan to complete the freeway with a 6.2-mile extension through El Sereno and downtown South Pasadena. The state agency expects approval of the project from the Federal Highway Administration and the California Transportation Commission by February.

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After that, said Joanne Nuckols, a member of the city’s transportation commission, the city has 30 days to act in federal court.

Federal Injunction

“After 15 years of them preparing this document (the environmental impact report), we only have 30 days to act,” she told the council.

The freeway link is under a federal injunction, after an action brought in federal district court in Los Angeles 15 years ago by South Pasadena, the Sierra Club and residents.

The plaintiffs successfully argued then that the state’s environmental review procedures were inadequate. Once state and federal approval is gained for the final environmental report, said Robert Vidor, an attorney from the state Department of Transportation, the state must get a go-ahead from a federal judge before the project can proceed.

“My impression is that the matter could be decided by the court without a jury,” said Vidor. “The plaintiff might have a different view.”

South Pasadena will indeed challenge that view, suggested Nuckols. “What we’re trying to do is keep the injunction in place,” she said. “The only thing stopping them (Caltrans) now is the injunction.”

City Manager John Bernardi will report to the council at its Dec. 2 meeting on taxing options. The council could ask for an addition to a utility tax or an assessment on property, he said. Bernardi will also discuss ways of reimbursing taxpayers should all of the funds raised not be spent.

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City Clerk Ruby Kerr was also directed by the council to determine the earliest possible date for a special election. The city is not due for a general election until 1990.

Will Hire Law Firm

At its next meeting, the council will also hire a law firm to represent the city. Members of the transportation commission have reviewed six firms, whose hourly costs ranged from $95 to $265. None would give an estimate as to the total cost of a legal action, said commission Chairman Martin Dilger. But Mayor James Woollacott estimated that the ultimate price will be “several hundred thousand dollars.”

Two weeks ago, the council hired the $4,000-a-month Sacramento lobbying firm of Ochoa & Sillas to press for an altered route.

Many fiscal conservatives, noting that the city is already facing budget difficulties, are already expressing skepticism about the extra tax. Former councilman Robert Wagner, an avowed fiscal conservative, also said he doubted that the measure could muster the necessary two-thirds majority from the voters.

“I think a sizable majority could support it,” he said, “but not two-thirds, because of the number of people living on fringe income.” More than a quarter of the city’s residents are elderly, many of them living on fixed incomes, he said.

Residents in the western part of the city have also expressed opposition, because the city has been pressing Caltrans to adopt the westerly route, skirting the city’s boundary with Los Angeles. According to Woollacott, such a route could reduce the number of homes requiring demolition from 1,400 to about 700. “There are a lot of good homes there (in the western part of the city),” he conceded, “but it’s a big fat difference.”

Tax Called Unfair

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Robert Cook, who lives near the city’s westerly line, disagreed. “It’s kind of an unfair tax for people who don’t want the freeway to go where the city wants it to go,” he said.

“This is one of the more difficult positions that any city council has faced in the history of South Pasadena,” said Councilman James Hodge, who supports the special tax.

He said, however, that the council was justified in spending a substantial sum in legal fees because of the potentially devastating effect the freeway could have on the city.

“I could rationalize a large sum of money,” he said, “because of the $1 million a year that the city will lose in average daily attendance (because of school children displaced by the freeway), property taxes and private property values.”


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