With his balding head, courtly demeanor and prim bow ties, 72-year-old Clinton C. Ternstrom looks like a university don who spends long nights by a fireside, contentedly rereading the classics.
You would never guess he rides a moped.
You also would never guess, cynical critics of county government say, that Ternstrom was appointed to the influential Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission by Supervisor Mike Antonovich.
While Antonovich is solidly pro-growth, homeowner activists say, Ternstrom has been an unpredictable force on the commission that approves or rejects plans for everything from candy stores to 5,000-unit subdivisions.
Unlike predecessors who represented Antonovich’s 5th District, Ternstrom is credited with forging ties between the often maligned commission and homeowner groups disillusioned with county government. In two short years, he has spearheaded efforts to preserve hillsides and, surprisingly, has won praise from both developers and homeowners as accessible, knowledgeable, open-minded and fair.
“I think he’s exceeded everyone’s expectations,” said Alan Cameron, a Santa Clarita activist.
“He’s been very open and honest with me,” said Santa Clarita Mayor Jan Heidt, a frequent critic of county government. “We haven’t had that kind of contact with the county for years.”
At times, Ternstrom has sided with developers. But he also has voted against major construction projects that were later supported by the supervisor who appointed him--and who could banish him from the five-member commission at any time.
“I don’t think he fits any labels,” said Gloria Glenn, a vice president of the Valencia Co. “He calls them as he sees them.”
One quickly learns to expect the unexpected from Ternstrom, a modest, semi-retired Brentwood architect rarely seen without a bow tie. Rigidly formal in hearings, he is personable and charming in private. He has also been known to quote essayist E. B. White to make a point.
Ternstrom’s goal while serving on the commission is to encourage development that conforms to the natural environment. He also says he wants to achieve balances in zoning to provide for unpopular and sometimes forgotten needs of urban life--halfway houses, drug treatment centers, shelters for battered wives.
Ternstrom predicts that Los Angeles County’s outlying areas will become trouble spots if growth is not carefully planned.
Next Problem Area
“The Antelope Valley is going to be the next problem area,” he said. Unless better links are forged between Palmdale, Lancaster, Santa Clarita and the county, northern Los Angeles county will become another San Fernando Valley--"a mediocre stretch of developed land.”
But for all his good intentions, Ternstrom often has lost battles over industrial or residential projects hotly opposed by homeowners in Agoura, Calabasas, the Santa Clarita Valley and other developing parts of the 5th District.
His failure to sway votes says as much about his personality--he disdains politicking--as about the Planning Commission, where members are not always influenced by a colleague’s vote.
“Unfortunately, he’s been in the minority,” Cameron said. “And that isn’t necessarily a criticism of his role. The other members of the commission have other masters.”
“He would like to get things done, but I think he’s been handcuffed,” said Robert Silverstein, president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and Environment.
Whether in victory or defeat, Ternstrom retains a gentlemanly air cultivated over a 42-year career that has taken him to, among other places, Borneo, Iran and Indonesia. In his travels he learned Spanish and a smattering of French, German and Italian. “I’ve forgotten all my Farsi,” he said.
Ternstrom earned a degree in architecture at USC in 1940, served four years in the Navy during World War II and spent his first year home after the war touring Mexico in a rebuilt Model A Ford with his wife, Marion. He launched his architectural practice in 1947.
His travels gave him an appreciation for diverse cultures, which he puts to good use in the Los Angeles area. “I love to go to Topanga,” he said, for example. “They’ve got everybody. “
Ternstrom has served in many professional and community groups, from the American Institute of Architects and Bel-Air Architectural Commission to Friends of the Brentwood Library and Nature Conservancy. Antonovich appointed Ternstrom in January, 1987, at the urging of former 5th District Commissioner Roy Donley.
“He has brought a unique brand of activism to the commission, which is useful,” Antonovich said.
This activism shows in Ternstrom’s hands-on approach to the job. “He comes into the work areas and chats with the staff more than any of the other commissioners,” said one planner. Ternstrom also sometimes meets with community groups to hear their complaints--a move Cameron called “unheard of"--and often tours proposed construction sites of projects up for commission review.
The commission is a little-known but powerful body charged with reviewing proposed developments--ranging from power plants to hot dog stands--in unincorporated county areas. The commission also oversees an area’s general plan, which acts as a blueprint for development.
Ternstrom’s penchant for discussing general plans or proposed projects with the planning department staff has raised eyebrows. Critics contend that he has come close to influencing, not just evaluating, staff recommendations before they reach the full commission.
“I have been criticized from other sources for that,” he acknowledged.
Development of Guidelines
Ternstrom views as one of his major accomplishments the development of guidelines for better grading and building on hillsides, which he spearheaded. The commission recently approved those guidelines.
Some of Ternstrom’s other efforts have not been so successful. He opposed a 150-house development on the former Renaissance Pleasure Faire site in Agoura. The commission approved it anyway. The supervisors, including Antonovich, gave the plan final approval this month.
Over Ternstrom’s objections, the commission also approved a general plan that increased the amount of industrial land in Castaic. Ternstrom complained that a large industrial park encroached upon a rural canyon. Antonovich and the board later approved the plan.
Ternstrom’s defeats illustrate Planning Commission protocol--or lack of it. Unlike the Board of Supervisors, there’s no gentlemen’s agreement giving commissioners greater influence over their own districts.
‘No Politics Involved
“We’re regional planning commissioners that happen to come from a district,” Ternstrom said. “There’s no politics involved.”
Some homeowners find that view naive.
A Calabasas homeowner who opposed a 205-house development that Ternstrom supported contended that some of Ternstrom’s votes were little more than empty gestures. “It’s a bit of a card game,” she groused. “He may vote against something knowing it will go to the Board of Supervisors and get approved.”
But both critics and supporters agree that Ternstrom’s dedication is never in doubt. “He feels bad if he thinks he may have made a bad decision,” said Rich Henderson, a former county planner. “He goes outside and takes a walk around the courtyard.”
That’s the vulnerable side to a man who sometimes appears deceptively stuffy and formal.
A more practical--and at first glance, whimsical--side shows through in his devotion to his moped. He rides it about mile from his home in Brentwood to his office tucked away in a building he designed on San Vicente Boulevard 35 years ago.
He started riding the moped at the height of the gasoline crisis in the late 1970s.
“I thought it was the patriotic thing to do,” Ternstrom said.