The white gloves are off and the bounds of civility are being tested in the quiet and affluent city of San Marino.
There are charges of greed, snobbery and “white flight.” There is talk of legal action and of recall efforts against the City Council and school board. One woman was so mad, she later confessed, that she wanted to “hit a lady” with a tomato at a public meeting.
Why the uproar?
The status quo in this western San Gabriel Valley suburb is being challenged by two groups of residents of unincorporated county land who, last spring, filed petitions seeking annexation to what the local newspaper calls “the finest, exclusively residential community in the entire West.”
San Marino’s last significant annexations occurred in the 1950s. And although the outcome of the current fight is not likely to be decided soon, the controversy is intensifying as hearings and strategy sessions occur weekly.
The wanna-bes, residents of about 900 households in two sections on San Marino’s northern border with Pasadena, complain of inadequate county services and say they feel alienated from county government.
The residents also would like to leave the Pasadena Unified School District, where standardized test scores are among the worst in the state, and link fortunes with the San Marino Unified School District, where student achievement levels are among the highest.
But some of the 14,000 residents of San Marino--where Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes glide along oak-shaded streets and the estimated annual average household income is $127,000--aren’t so sure they want to let the outsiders in.
Annexation opponents talk about the issue as if their community were a European mountaintop fortress--similar to the city’s namesake, the Republic of San Marino, where medieval crossbow warriors once held back invaders.
“Annexation offers no benefit to . . . this community,” said Joseph Lubinksy, an eight-year resident who runs a Los Angeles music and ad production company.
He said he fears that it may cost current residents too much to educate and to supply police and fire protection to even a few additional citizens.
“This isn’t a snobbery thing,” he added. “I play tennis with guys . . . from the annexation area. I prefer them to be a part of Pasadena. Why don’t they put their efforts into making the schools better in Pasadena?”
Perhaps, annexation critics say, the would-be newcomers hope a tonier San Marino address may hike their home values by $50,000 to $100,000. A nationwide survey earlier this year showed that, at $661,000 for an average four-bedroom house, San Marino ranked as the country’s third-most expensive housing market.
But pro-annexation forces say they don’t exactly live in the low-rent district, with many of their homes in the $400,000 to $1 million range.
The complaints against them wound as surely as a crossbow.
“We are very, very hurt by what some San Marinans have been saying about us,” read a full-page ad in the San Marino Tribune taken out by annexation advocates.
“Many of us lived or grew up in San Marino,” the ad said. “Our children attend private school in San Marino. . . . We celebrate the Fourth of July at Lacy Park.”
One of the signers of the ad, attorney Clifton Smith, who lived in San Marino in the late 1970s but now lives just outside the city limits, said the objections stem from snobbery.
And, with a bitter tone, he added: “It’s not even coming from the more substantial people in town.”
Emotional outbursts and raised voices at recent City Council and school board meetings have shocked some. Mayor Suzanne Crowell said: “San Marino is very genteel community. I have a dozen friends who can’t believe people are so uptight over this.”
The City Council created a commission to study the annexation issue. When vocal opposition surfaced this fall, four council members at a public hearing indicated their reservations. However, the council has continued to study the issue and no final decision has been made. The fact that city officials have not quickly killed the idea has prompted talk of recall.
Disgruntled city residents have collected petitions with, they say, hundreds of signatures decrying expansion of city boundaries beyond the existing 3.75 square miles.
Yet annexation advocates point out that the city could benefit from an influx of new property tax revenue. And, because state education funding is tied to average daily attendance, additional students could bring needed dollars to San Marino schools.
“We would pay our way, " said county resident Ralph Hofer, a Los Angeles attorney who also represents one of the groups seeking annexation.
The annexation process could require approving votes by the City Council, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the Local Agency Formation Commission, and perhaps even the residents of the annexation areas. San Marino residents will not get to vote on the matter, although the council plans to take a “straw poll” through the city newsletter.
The smaller of the two areas seeking to be annexed, with 92 single-family houses, refers to itself as the “San Pasqual Strip,” after San Pasqual Street. The other area has about 470 single-family houses and 347 apartments and condominiums and a small commercial shopping area.
San Marino’s prohibition against apartments and condominiums has colored discussions about the larger area. Patti Krigbaum, who lives in the apartment neighborhood, complained that one San Marino woman said annexation would be the same as California taking in its poorer neighbor, Mexico.
Further complicating the debate is a State Board of Education decision earlier this year to permit about 45 children in the San Pasqual Strip to attend San Marino public schools--regardless of the outcome of the annexation fight.
San Marino school officials say they would welcome the students, but Pasadena school officials have gone to court to block the transfer, arguing their system needs the largely white neighborhood for racial balance.
“We’re struggling in an urban setting to maintain quality schools for everyone,” said Anne Pursel, president of the Pasadena school board. “It doesn’t help to be nibbled to death.”
The requests from two groups seeking to annex to San Marino are up in the air until representatives from the city and county conclude negotiations on how much property tax money would go to the city. The San Marino City Council decides if the amount is adequate. The county Board of Supervisors would also have to approve the tax amount. Then, the Local Agency Formation Commission in Los Angeles would hold a hearing and vote. If LAFCO approves the proposal, the council then will hold a hearing to solicit public comment. If fewer than 25% of the voters or landowners in the annexation area object in writing, the council must approve the plan. If objections are filed by 25% to 49%, residents of the annexation area vote on the matter. If 50% or more object, the proposal fails.