Hoping to halt the construction of 25 hillside houses, leaders of the Glenoaks Canyon Homeowners Assn. briefly considered a costly option: buying the developer's land to leave it green and undisturbed.
But after a little arithmetic, they found that it would cost each of the canyon's 750 households about $10,000. And although it would keep the bulldozers away from this 30-acre site, more than 300 other lots with development potential would still remain in Glenoaks Canyon, association President Dave Weaver said.
That idea was set aside, but the Glenoaks homeowners are spearheading a broader campaign that would save many more slopes and spread the cost to property owners throughout Glendale.
The association wants to put an open-space bond measure on the April municipal election ballot. Its leaders believe that Glendale voters would be willing to boost their annual property tax bills to preserve the city's scenic hillsides and create new parks in Glendale's "flatland" neighborhoods.
Although the size of the tax increase has not been determined, "it's going to be a hell of a lot less than $10,000 a year per household to stop just one project from developing," Weaver said.
Support for a hillside bond measure appears to be gaining momentum. At the Glenoaks association's annual meeting this month, more than 100 members signed up to work on the bond campaign.
The Glendale Homeowners Coordinating Council, made up of officers from 15 homeowner groups representing about 30,000 residents, has endorsed the idea. The officers have been asked to poll the members of their individual organizations and report the results next month.
Glendale City Council members, who have the power to put bond measures on the ballot, discussed open-space preservation at their August retreat in Oxnard and at recent community meetings.
"They're going to be very supportive, but they need us to take the lead," said Harold E. Cross Jr., president of the coordinating council. "And they want us to determine whether there's going to be enough support. It would be silly to go forward if there wasn't enough support."
That was the case in 1975, when Glendale voters rejected $12.7 million in bond measures aimed at purchasing open-space acreage in the Verdugo Mountains and San Rafael Hills. Some Glendale officials blame this defeat on the pre-Proposition 13 uproar over rising property taxes.
Councilman Jerold Milner said a much larger bond measure will be needed now because hillside land costs six to seven times more. Milner said these land prices will probably continue to rise as new hillside development plans are submitted.
"This is one of those issues where you have one more chance," Milner said. "If you don't buy it now, you'll never be able to buy it."
During a hearing on the Sleepy Hollow tract last March, angry Glenoaks Canyon homeowners demanded that the council stop any further construction that would mar the scenic slopes. The council approved an 18-month moratorium on most hillside building to devise new restrictions.
But Milner warned residents that the council cannot stop all house construction on private hillside land. "We are not in a position to tell a developer, 'No, you can't do anything with it,' " he said.
City officials say that there are 1,606 acres of private, undeveloped hillside residential land in the San Gabriel Mountains, Verdugo Mountains and the San Rafael Hills within Glendale.
Key questions still surround the proposed bond measure that would be used to acquire this acreage:
* How large should the bond issue be?
The more money raised, the more land that can be purchased. But the larger the tax increase, the more likely that voters will reject it. The issue is critical because the bond measure must be passed by two-thirds of the city's voters, not just a simple majority.
* Which land should be preserved?
It is unlikely that the bonds would yield enough to buy all 1,606 acres. Should the council allow a developer to build on some of his land if he agrees to donate the rest to the city as open space?
Proponents of the bond measure say that they hope to have answers to these questions by December.
"If they're going to put it on the ballot in April, it seems to me they have a whole lot of work to do," said Salvatore Gangi, a Glendale builder whose family owns undeveloped hillside property. "None of us know what they intend to buy."
Gangi said he has not received enough information to take a position for or against a hillside bond measure. "Besides everything else, I'm a taxpayer," he said. "I want to know how much this is going to cost."
City officials have said they may not need to buy some hillside land because the terrain may be too steep or rugged for development. But Gangi said rising property values and new grading techniques have made construction possible on land that was once dismissed as "goat country."
"If the city wants to buy our property, we would sell it to them," Gangi said. "We just want to make sure we get fair market value."
In other cities, however, deciding the value of rugged hillside property has led to fierce debate between property owners and government officials. The value is tied to its development potential, and there is often disagreement over how many homes could be built if the land is not saved as open space.
Regarding the Glendale proposal, Gangi pointed out that many of the homeowners who support the bond measure live in neighborhoods that were themselves built amid controversy.
"It's very easy to get cynical about people who come from hillside subdivisions that required a lot of grading, who now say they don't want more grading," Gangi said.
But bond backers believe hillside preservation is particularly important to Glendale's longtime residents.
"They've seen the changes, and they want to preserve the character of the city, which would be lost if the hills are totally developed," said the coordinating council's Cross. "I think the hills are what makes Glendale unique. Otherwise, it might look like Van Nuys."
Because they will need wide support to get the bond measure passed, proponents are tying hillside preservation to a second plan to build new parks, particularly in some of the densely crowded apartment neighborhoods.
Glendale has developed 23 city parks on 206 acres, but on weekends and holidays many of them are overcrowded, said Nello Iacono, the city's parks and recreation director.
Opening new parks has been difficult, partly because little vacant land is left in urban Glendale. The bond measure could provide funds to buy and clear lots that are already developed or to work with the Glendale Unified School District on joint campus-public parks.
Although exact figures have not been determined, Councilman Milner said six new urban park sites, including a large one geared to senior citizens, might cost $8 million. He said another $50 million might buy 1,000 of the 1,606 acres of hillside open space.
Interest payments would double the size of such a bond measure to almost $120 million. Milner said the proponents must tinker with these numbers when they decide how large a tax increase each household is willing to pay.
"If it were possible to keep it under $100 a year, that obviously has more appeal than if it's between $100 and $200," he said. "And if it's over $200, I think a lot of people might vote against it because they can't afford it."
After the bond guidelines are settled, the proponents will probably need to spend $20,000 to $30,000 on a campaign to persuade Glendale residents to vote for the measure. The proponents acknowledge it may be a tough challenge because of the accompanying tax increase.
"Ultimately," said Weaver of the Glenoaks association, "that's going to be the deciding issue--how much is it going to cost, and what am I going to get for it?"