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Monrovia Surprises Itself With Bond to Protect Hills

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Monrovia, voters are so opposed to government debt--and taxes--that until last summer only one city bond measure had passed since the Eisenhower era.

It was quite a surprise when a special bond issue raising taxes to buy 600 acres of foothill open space was approved by voters.

“I had no clue this would happen,” said Stephen Miller, president and co-director of the Foothills Wildlife Conservancy, which led the effort to preserve the foothills. “I couldn’t have dreamed this up.”

But it is real. And Miller’s vision could spread to other foothill communities. City officials in Duarte and conservationists in Sierra Madre hope to duplicate Monrovia’s success.

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Accompanied by local media and federal and state wilderness workers, members of a land acquisition committee toured the foothills on Saturday, maps in hand, and came across: a brown bear and her two cubs, rare Inglewood oaks with leaves of fire orange and yellow, and the endangered Braunton’s milk vetch, whose yard-tall stems and ashen-green leaves are found in only two other places in the country.

“These areas are very important,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Kevin Clark, who helped identify the local species and laments the loss of local wildlife habitats.

Monrovia wants to preserve these hills spanning the northern edge of the San Gabriel Valley. They have been battlegrounds between developers and environmentalists since the real estate market began rebounding with the nation’s economy in the early 1990s.

Some of the land will remain an untouched wilderness preserve, while other sections will be connected to nearby Monrovia Canyon Park by trails.

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There are 1,000 acres of undeveloped foothill land within Monrovia--400 of which are already owned by the city.

In 1998, members of the city’s Hillside Advisory Committee, composed of residents and builders, recommended that the City Council allow minimal development on the 600 acres privately owned.

“Everybody was under the mistaken assumption that this land could not be developed,” Miller said. As a result, he, other conservancy members and about 1,000 volunteers began knocking on doors, distributing fliers and holding meetings to fight the proposal.

“We had six public hearings with about 300 people attending,” said Robert Kastenbaum, the city’s director of community development. “It became clear that no plan was acceptable. The people said ‘No. We want zero development.’ ”

Whatever restrictions the city put on development of the land had to be reasonable or Monrovia would wind up in court, Kastenbaum said.

There was only one thing to do, said Mayor Robert Bartlett.

“It occurred to me and the rest of the City Council: Let’s put our money where our mouths are,” he said. So the issue was put to a public vote.

The council put two measures on the ballot. Measure A designated any city-owned portion of the foothills as a wilderness and recreational preserve. It also limited development on the 600 acres of private hillsides to no more than 75 new projects.

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Measure B approved a $10-million city bond issue to purchase as much of the unspoiled private land as possible. The bonds would be paid for with a 30-year tax ranging from about $45 on single-family homes to $7,000 for large businesses, city officials said.

Miller’s group then turned its attention from City Hall to voters. Yellow “Vote yes on Measures A and B” signs began sprouting all over the city, and the conservancy worked to assuage fears developers and homeowners had about the measures. In particular, they talked to owners of apartment buildings to assure them that the tax increase would be significantly less per apartment unit than for single-family homes.

The conservancy was “intelligent in what they did,” said Suzanne Thompson, a board member of the neighboring Claremont Wildlands Conservancy. “They identified who would likely be against the measures and approached them about their concerns.”

It worked. When the votes were tallied, 77% were in favor of Monrovia’s Measure B. And 85% approved Measure A.

“It’s not unusual that communities are starting to worry about their foothills throughout Los Angeles,” said Martin Schlageter, conservation coordinator in the Los Angeles office of the Sierra Club, which donated $1,000 for the campaign.

What was unusual, he said, was that voters “opted to tax themselves to save their foothills.”

It was the first city bond measure to pass since Monrovians voted to improve the town’s waterworks system in 1955. Monrovia voters, along with east Arcadia residents, had passed a $34-million school bond issue in 1997 but that, too, was a shock--the area hadn’t passed a school bond sale since 1926.

The victory has drawn interest from neighboring cities. The Claremont conservancy is negotiating with owners of foothill land, and bond measures like Monrovia’s are being considered, Thompson said.

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In Duarte, officials are thinking of doing the same thing.

“Once the measures were voted on and passed, our City Council’s interest went up quite a bit,” said Ed Cox, Duarte’s director of community development.

City officials have appointed a task force to assess that possibility and had the land appraised. They will use a phone survey to determine the chances of passing a bond measure to acquire 400 acres, Cox said.

In September, the conservancy in Sierra Madre sought Miller’s advice.

Kastenbaum said that most of the half-dozen owners of foothill land in Monrovia are willing to sell, but it will take at least six months before any deals are made.

Meanwhile, Monrovia plans to raise an additional $5 million to $10 million needed through matching federal and state grants.

“They say you can’t fight City Hall,” Miller said. “Well, you can . . . . Our City Council has become a preservationist group because it was the will of the people.”


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