The Arcadia City Council voted Tuesday to keep Wilderness Park closed on weekends except by reservation, responding to affluent neighbors’ complaints that it was overrun by outsiders and becoming a crime problem.
The park, which the council also voted to rename Arcadia Wilderness Preserve in an effort to emphasize its natural history and educational programs, will remain open to anyone during the week.
But on weekends, the decades-old foothill park, etched with hiking trails and rich in wildlife, will be open for a fee only to groups that reserve it, with non-residents paying more. The changes, drafted for the council by recreation director Jerome J. Collins, also call for expanded nature-oriented activities at the park.
The council majority voted in a study session Aug. 10 to close the park on weekends and suggested that it eventually be reopened only to Arcadia residents and groups, a move that City Atty. Michael H. Miller deemed legally questionable. A differential fee scale, however, is legal and has been adopted by other communities, including San Marino for Lacy Park, he said.
Suggestions to restrict park use have been criticized as being elitist, and as an attempt to unfairly exclude lower-income Latinos who flock to the park from other San Gabriel Valley cities.
Councilman George W. Fasching, who had recommended that the park be restricted to Arcadians on the weekends, countered those criticisms Tuesday.
“We are not elitist, nor do we have any racism involved in this,” he said. “I feel that this is not a typical park. This is mainly a wilderness preserve and I think the time has come that we treat it as such.”
But Robert Kirkpatrick, who said he has visited the park since he was a boy and brings his grandchildren there regularly on weekends, said the closure was drastic and unnecessary.
“I can see where they’re saying drugs and alcohol may be a problem, but I have not seen anything of that order,” said Kirkpatrick, who has an Arcadia address but lives in an unincorporated county area. “I just cannot see or conceive of closing a city park like this or changing it in any way.”
Members of the Highland Oaks Homeowners Assn. have been complaining for two years of increased traffic on the neighborhood’s narrow streets, crowding, and what they say is a mounting security problem at the park, including drug and alcohol use, a gang presence and even poaching.
In an earlier report to the council, however, Arcadia Police Capt. David Hinig said that although crowding was causing traffic problems and potential fire danger in the park and surrounding forest land, crime and drinking at the park were nominal and comparable to any other park.
The council’s 3-1 decision, with Councilman Robert C. Harbicht dissenting, came after Kirkpatrick and one other non-Arcadia resident spoke against closing the park and no one spoke in favor of it. But the decision was welcomed with a round of applause from more than a dozen Highland Oaks homeowners, several of whom got up later to thank the council for their action.
“I’m not a prejudiced individual. We’ve just seen the riffraff,” Highland Oaks resident Mel Cohen said. “I’ve seen graffiti. I’ve heard their ghetto blasters.
“I’m sorry not everyone can enjoy what some people can enjoy during the week,” he added. “I am here strictly as a citizen. I love where we live. I do not want any riffraff coming into our city.”
Harbicht stressed that Hinig’s report discounted residents’ allegations of a serious crime problem, and suggested that less restrictive measures could be explored to solve the problem.
“I consider the closing of a park to be a very drastic measure that should only be warranted by drastic circumstances,” Harbicht said. “If overcrowding is the problem at the park, then the solution is to limit the number to a number that can be handled by the park.
“I’m concerned about what message we’re giving out,” he said of the restrictions that place more of a burden on non-residents than residents. “‘Please come to our racetrack, because we get revenue from that, and please come to our shopping mall because we get revenue from that, and come spend your money at our revitalized downtown. But don’t you dare use our parks.”
Reservations for a sheltered area with cooking facilities that can accommodate groups of 75 will cost $50 for residents and $75 for non-residents. The picnic areas, which can accommodate groups of up to 12, will cost $10 for residents and $15 for non-residents.
Harbicht’s suggestion that the council explore alternatives was quickly brushed aside by his colleagues.
“We have had reports of gang activity,” Mayor Joseph C. Ciraulo said. “The park has been overrun with these people.”
Ciraulo, Councilman Dennis A. Lojeski and Fasching voted in favor of the continued park closure. Councilman R.G. Bob Margett was absent.
Kirkpatrick vowed to keep the issue alive, and said he felt sure that many Arcadia residents who were unaware of the closure will oppose it.
“I don’t think they examined the alternatives. That’s what’s commonly referred to as a good railroad job,” he said of the quick council decision. “But that doesn’t mean it’s over. We can petition.”