Each time I drive back to Sierra Madre I half expect the town to be gone. I figure it must have been a movie set or existed only in a dream, but there it is each time. Postcard perfect.
You settle in at a sidewalk table with a cup of joe from the homey Bean Town cafe and feel like you’re in a remote mountain hamlet, the San Gabriels towering overhead and well-scrubbed villagers strolling by without a care, perhaps on their way to the Huck Finn Fishing Derby or Wistaria Festival.
Or so it always seemed.
But it turns out that looks can be deceiving. Beneath its charming veneer, the town of 10,000 is in a dither over two development proposals: a 72-unit residential and commercial project and a 55-unit residential deal.
Old friends cross the street to avoid each other, the city manager fled town, bloggers are waging war with words and images that might be called homophobic and racist. Some people have reported mysteriously punctured tires. And a dead mole turned up splayed on the doorstep of a local newspaper publisher.
“It was right here,” Katina Dunn, who runs the Mt. Wilson Observer, told me as we stood in the driveway of her home.
Dunn, the wife of actor Kevin Dunn, said she froze the evidence.
I don’t think she was kidding.
“It all sounds kind of creepy,” I said in the company of Dunn, two City Council members and assorted other supporters of an April 17 ballot measure that could kill both development proposals. “It’s like the TV show ‘Twin Peaks.’ ”
Measure V -- which would give citizens approval power on large developments -- is supported by, among others, Susan Henderson, a columnist for the Observer. In an apparent attempt at humor, an anonymous blogger who’s adopted a pen name that can’t run in a family newspaper, likened Henderson, who is black, to Aunt Jemima.
Another blogger, known as the Sierra Madre Cumquat, reported -- in one of the lamest stabs at satire I’ve seen in a while -- that Councilman Kurt Zimmerman had opened a bathhouse for young men, superimposing his photo over what looked like a gay orgy. The same website made up a story that pornographic images of V supporter Faye Angus had been released on YouTube.
“It’s so vile,” said Angus, an author who has lived in Sierra Madre for nearly 50 years and speaks with a very proper Aussie accent. “I don’t look at [the blogging], but there are people around town who monitor it and let me know.”
When I told Angus that DowntownDirt.org didn’t appear to be as satirical as other sites and instead seemed devoted to jabbing the Observer, she scoffed. DowntownDirt has a space devoted to “lively, spirited and civilized debate,” on which a February entry by “Cumquat” asked “how long it’s been” since Angus “had an orgasm.”
Makes you wonder if there are any grown-ups left in town.
Some folks, such as retired journalist Jackie Knowles, argue that the vast majority of residents are not engaged in all this hysteria and wish it would go away. But there’s no denying that the mud-slinging and a steady rain of annoying political mailers have taken a toll in paradise.
“It’s ugly both ways,” said Judy Webb-Martin, a local real estate broker who is campaigning against Measure V.
She and an ex-mayor, a blogger and a Realtor, among others, warned me outside Bean Town not to trust the other side’s distortions.
Before I proceed, I suppose now is the time to attempt to explain -- and I’m not saying I’ll succeed, given local peculiarities -- what all of this is about.
Going back a couple of years, Angus, Katina Dunn and many others in town became worried that city leaders could not be trusted to protect the 19th century character and scale of downtown Sierra Madre. Dunn, who was then with the Sierra Madre Weekly, got hold of a draft for downtown development and published a story that sent a shiver through town.
“It was an increase of 1,387 parking spaces, 325 new residential units and 221,110 square feet of commercial space,” said Dunn, whose story caused widespread hyperventilating.
This was huge news in a town that prides itself on not having a single traffic light, and last year three concerned citizens were voted onto City Council to mind the store. Soon after the election, one of the three new council members, Joe Mosca, opposed holding a citywide vote on the downtown plan, arguing that it was a mere draft that hadn’t been finalized and never would be.
That didn’t sit well with some of his former supporters.
It turns out that when the lights go out on the mountain each night, suspicion reigns. Restless souls, determined to save their fair town, quickly began pitching Measure V, which would give townsfolk a vote on any project that exceeds two stories or 30 feet in height and more than 18 units per acre.
Mosca accuses Dunn of blowing the whole thing out of proportion. No way will projects that would ruin Sierra Madre get approved by the council, he insists.
The planning and review process has always worked, he adds, saying it’s irresponsible to spend $100,000 on an unnecessary election in a town with a budget of just over $5 million.
Trust City Hall?
Not Katina Dunn, whose Mt. Wilson Observer ran a screamer of a story (next to the one about the Woman’s Club’s Ice Cream Social) telling readers that outside real estate development interests had bankrolled the No on V campaign. As of two weeks ago, the tally stood at $119,850 -- the bulk of it from out of town -- for the No campaign and a mere $10,327 for the Yes side.
Councilman Zimmerman said those numbers are all the more reason to be suspicious that outsiders plan to ram a couple of big developments through, make their tidy little fortune and walk away, leaving locals to deal with the traffic and other nightmares never before visited upon the mountain.
But at Bean Town, the anti-V crowd called that a bunch of hysterical nonsense. They said the measure would cost a fortune in legal challenges, discourage necessary and sensible development and put amateurs instead of professionals in charge of planning review. Besides, they said, no one would ever dream of selling off the one true treasure of Sierra Madre: its small-town charm.
I never thought Sierra Madre would need a visit from Rodney King, but someone’s got to ask these people what it will take for them to all get along.
“Oh, come on,” said Prudential’s Dan Bryant, who represented the sale of the Howie’s Market land that is the site of the 72-unit proposal. “You love this stuff.”
I started to argue but then realized he may have a point. No disrespect to the Huck Finn Fishing Derby or the Wistaria Festival (they spell wistaria with an A, and I’m not about to argue with these people), but I didn’t see a column in either.