Sierra Madre Proposes Strict Limits for Hillsides : Building: The city’s third attempt in two years to control development in the foothills is the toughest yet.


A hillside development ordinance is again making the rounds in Sierra Madre, the third such attempt in two years to preserve the San Gabriel Mountain foothills that provide a backdrop to this small town.

This version--devised after seven months of work by a task force of land use attorneys, hillside property owners and conservationists--could replace the strict ordinance now on the books with one even stricter.

Instead of a maximum of about 100 houses allowed under the current hillside development ordinance, the proposed ordinance would permit only about 65 houses, said Dale Beland, a land-use consultant hired by the Hillside Task Force.


Yet, task force member Gurdon Miller said the proposed ordinance has met with more acceptance from conservationists and property owners than previous versions devised by the city’s Planning Commission and City Council.

If adopted by the council, the ordinance could put an end to two years of haggling, moratoriums, last-minute ordinances and a lawsuit by one hillside property owner.

The reason for the greater acceptance, Miller said, is that the new ordinance thoroughly maps the slopes and geological features on the 557 acres of hillsides above the town. Development is then based on those features and the slope of the land.

“From a technical standpoint, this is one of the most thoroughly done and tailor-made hillside ordinances ever proposed,” said Miller, a Los Angeles city senior planner.

“This isn’t the way ordinances are usually prepared,” he said. “It’s a handmade ordinance. The ordinance was written by people who live in Sierra Madre and care about it.”

Air photos and computers were used to create a detailed topographic map, Miller said. Property owner Ted Willis photographed the hillsides from city streets to determine view lines and other property owners chipped in to pay consultant Beland, he said.

The ordinance was presented Monday evening during a joint meeting in City Hall of the task force, the Planning Commission and the City Council. As outlined by Beland, the ordinance does away with five development zones imposed vertically on the hillsides under the current ordinance.

Instead of zones of density ranging from one house per 15,000 square feet to one house per 40 acres, the new ordinance uses a density formula based on the steepness of the slopes and the size of the parcel.

Generally, slopes of up to 15% can contain a maximum of three structures per acre, slopes from 15% to 20% a maximum of two structures per acre, 20% to 25% one structure per two acres, and 25% and above one structure per 100 acres.

Imposed on this grid is a series of building prohibitions based on geological features. Construction is not permitted within 100 feet of a ridge line, on stream beds or vegetation areas, or near hiking trails or historic structures.

“This is stricter (than the current ordinance) but more importantly, the proposed ordinance is sensitive to environmental conditions, things that you can actually show: streams, slopes, ridges,” Miller said.

The new ordinance also contains a unique feature in that building is allowed on areas that cannot be seen from the town’s streets. It also excludes most of the flat land owned by the Passionist Fathers retreat house from the hillside boundaries.

The Planning Commission will hold a study session Sept. 6 to discuss concerns about density, the bottom boundary line and the elimination of requirements for curbs, gutters and sidewalks.

In addition, the City Council must consider an environmental impact report. Thus, work on the ordinance is expected to continue for months.

BACKGROUND The proposed hillside development ordinance is Sierra Madre’s third attempt to preserve the rural character of the foothills. After a hillside building moratorium was imposed in 1988, the city’s Planning Commission worked for a year to devise a strict new ordinance that was presented in September, 1989. But that ordinance displeased most of the 15 major hillside property owners and a less-stringent version was devised by the City Council last November. The strict version was hastily passed by the council in January, however, when an attorney for one hillside property owner argued that the moratorium of 1988 had reached its two-year limit. A nine-member Hillside Task Force was created in March to devise the ordinance now being considered. A second moratorium was imposed in June to prevent development while the task force worked.