Huntington Beach Redevelops Into Slow-Growth City


Old-timers in the audience of the City Council were stunned.

There, in the same chamber where development czars once boldly signaled how they wanted a vote to go, a new council majority was debating the environmental soundness of a routine street repair. Ultimately, the council decided to require that the recycled asphalt and concrete be used for the repairs.

That scene Monday was a sign of the change that has come to Huntington Beach as the result of a political upset in the fall

Huntington Beach, which heretofore has derisively been called a pro-development "company town," now has a 5-2 environmental majority on its council. Many other changes are likely in the days ahead, according to both supporters and critics of the new council majority.

"What has happened on the City Council is the difference between day and night. It's a breath of fresh air," said Doug Langevin, a downtown businessman who frequently criticized previous councils.

"Since the early 1900s, the Huntington Beach Co., or its predecessors, have ruled this town with an iron fist. What has happened this year is one of those rare occasions where the citizens have revolted and taken control of their own town."

The Huntington Beach Co., the city's largest landowner, is now a part of Chevron USA. Chevron officials have said repeatedly that they consider themselves corporate good citizens of the community. They have denied trying to control city politics.

But critics have assailed Chevron and the Huntington Beach Co. as being the political power behind the throne, dominating local politics by heavily financing pro-development candidates.

Barbara Milcovich, a Huntington Beach resident who is completing a doctoral thesis on Orange County politics, said city history shows that the development company has ruled the community for almost 90 years "as a patriarchy."

"Since 1904, the City Council has been developer-dominated," Milcovich said. "This year is really the first time it has not been that way, and so I guess you could say what has happened this year is the beginning of a new era."

Milcovich said that throughout most of Huntington Beach's history, residents favored growth.

"But in recent years, there's been a a slow-growth movement that's become very strong, and what has happened this year is the result of that movement," she said.

Many people in the city, including Langevin, contend that the turnaround year in city politics was 1990.

"The people showed that they were tired of what the developers were doing when they passed Measure C in 1990," Langevin said.

Measure C was a citizens' initiative that stemmed from an attempt by the City Council to put a commercial golf course in Huntington Central Park. Enraged by that, some residents formed an organization named Save Our Parks, aimed at preventing city officials from selling or leasing any part of the parks or beaches without a citywide vote.

When Measure C qualified for the fall 1990 ballot, the City Council, which had a 5-2 pro-development majority, rushed through an alternative called Measure D. Measure D's campaign received large contributions from developers; Measure C had slight financial backing. But in the end, Measure C was the runaway winner, capturing more than 70% of the vote.

Measure C, among other things, killed a controversial proposal for Pierside Village, which called for a complex of new restaurants on the beach side of Pacific Coast Highway. The City Council had indicated it would lease the beach to the developer. But after Measure C passed, that could only happen if a majority of voters approved the lease. The council, perhaps sensing it would lose such a campaign, dropped the issue.

Many residents of the city still proudly refer to themselves as "Measure C people." The slow-growth political campaign in 1992 capitalized on the Measure C movement by getting the initiative's supporters to vote for the three environmentalists running for City Council.

Two of those candidates won on Nov. 3. Victor Leipzig, a professor at Golden West College, and David Sullivan joined two incumbent environmentalists on the council, Grace Winchell and Linda Moulton-Patterson, to form a new majority.

On Monday, the environmental majority named yet another environmentalist, Ralph Bauer, to fill a two-year vacancy on the council, created by the death on Nov. 7 of Councilman Jack Kelly.

The new majority of the council is not without critics.

A new organization, Community Forum-Huntington Beach, was founded this month by about a dozen local people who contend that the new council is too one-sided.

Tom Duchene, a businessman and one of the forum's founders, said "the council members were elected to represent all the people, not just the environmental point of view. We think the council needs to be concerned about the needs of all of the community, including the businesses and the industries and the children."

Winchell, who is now the city's new mayor, said Duchene's fears are baseless.

"This new City Council has a broad and comprehensive understanding of the dynamics and interconnections of business, industry and residents," Winchell said. "We certainly want a healthy economy and a viable community, in all aspects."

Winchell acknowledged that many big proposed developments now will get additional scrutiny. One such development is the Koll Co.'s proposal to build up to 4,884 new homes on land around the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.

But Winchell said she feels the new council majority will be open-minded.

Terry Dolton, chairman of the environmental group Amigos de Bolsa Chica, similarly predicted that the new council majority will be fair.

"I think the council will be looking at the intensity of development--at the density," Dolton said. "I don't think they'll be trying to stop development altogether."

Langevin said it simply boils down to developers' campaign donations no longer holding sway over City Hall.

"The new council majority is going to be listening to the people, instead of listening to the dollars of the developers," Langevin predicted.

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