Ask someone in Hidden Hills when the last City Council election was held, and you may get a blank stare. The year was 1984. Two elections scheduled since then were canceled because of a lack of candidates.
But on April 10, voters in the gated, tree-nestled city of 2,000 in the western San Fernando Valley go to the polls in what could be among the most hotly contested races in Hidden Hills history.
That is because Hidden Hills--a city of large estates and private roads and a place unto itself for 29 years--is mulling over a plan to build lower-cost housing for senior citizens.
In some cities the issue of 48 apartments for senior citizens might not cause a stir. But Hidden Hills is no ordinary city.
Jaguars and Porsches share the roadways with horses. Many of the homes double as spacious horse ranches, ringed with white, ranch-style fences that are required by the town's homeowners' association.
When the sun goes down, the 2-square-mile city becomes a refuge from the clutter, din and miles of lights of the heavily urbanized valley. The pitch-black night--the city has no street lights--is punctuated by the sounds of bullfrogs and the occasional crowing of a rooster.
The only commercial establishments are housed in two buildings just outside the town's gates. The services offered: real estate and construction.
The town has no apartments or condominiums. Its homeowners' association seems to wield as much power as the city government, if not more, maintaining roads and operating the city's gates. Hidden Hills residents reportedly have included celebrities such as Bob Eubanks, Frankie Avalon and Neil Diamond. The average sale price of a home in 1988 was $843,579, according to the city.
This season, three City Council members are seeking reelection against three challengers in a race that the incumbents see as a referendum on their support of the proposed 48-unit senior citizens apartment building outside the town's gates.
Since the council first set a course toward approval of the proposal last year, it has found itself the target of vitriolic criticism from some residents. In addition, the developer behind the proposal has filed a $10-million lawsuit against the city, which also is being pressed by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge. The judge wants the lower-cost housing approved to settle a separate lawsuit against the city by Los Angeles County.
As a result, the campaign has consisted of council members saying they are doing their best to guide the city through a complex set of legal barriers that residents do not yet fully understand, while the challengers say the council simply never bothered to explain it all.
Last year, the council decided in closed session--as allowed by state law--to enter into a court-approved agreement calling for the city to construct lower-cost housing on land that it would annex outside its gates. The agreement is an attempt to settle the 6-year-old lawsuit filed by the county over Hidden Hills' use of a redevelopment agency formed to fund a needed flood-control project. State law requires that a portion of redevelopment money be spent on lower-cost housing.
"All this was done without anybody knowing," challenger Howard Klein said of the council's move to settle and enter into a pre-annexation agreement with the developer. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge R. William Schoettler Jr. said this month he plans to enforce the court settlement.
Now that the land has been annexed and public hearings on the 25-acre project have begun, the challengers say the council is ignoring the will of the majority. The majority, they say, opposes Tarzana developer Danny Howard's proposal for the apartment building and a five-story commercial structure next to it. Howard also wants to build nine luxury homes that, unlike the two more controversial buildings, would be inside the town's gates.
Klein and candidates David G. Stanley and Susan Norris Porcaro helped draft questions for a poll the council conducted in January. Asked if the council should continue on the course of using the redevelopment agency and constructing the lower-cost housing, about two-thirds of the respondents said no.
"At worst it was improper to have done all of this without getting a consensus of the people in the city," Stanley said. He said the city, which now has no multifamily housing, has not sufficiently studied the alternatives.
Stanley, Klein and Porcaro deny they oppose lower-cost housing. Incumbent Mayor Chris K. Van Peski, Councilwoman Colleen M. Hartman and Councilman Warren H. McCament, however, have little doubt that the proposed senior citizens apartment building is at the root of the controversy.
"When this whole thing became a furor, it was on the basis of those people who are running against us saying, 'Do you want low-cost housing next to you?' " McCament said. "Nobody in Hidden Hills would want low-cost housing next to them. What it would do to the property values and so on would really destroy them, and nobody on this council ever wanted that, ever espoused that, ever had that kind of idea."
City Atty. Wayne K. Lemieux has contended that the apartments and the commercial building would not be detrimental to the rest of Hidden Hills because they would be outside the gates, not connected to the town's private roads and separated from the rest of the city by a slope.
Hartman said her opponents leave her somewhat bewildered. "They're jumping back and forth. It's affordable housing, and then the next day it's commercial development. . . . We have a few people who are just plain paranoid."
For whatever reason, the controversy in Hidden Hills has evoked a range of responses. Recently at the town's City Hall, an unidentified person wrote on a posted agenda about the senior citizens housing: "They'll be wheelchairing over here and wear out our jungle (gym) and tennis courts."