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Disney-Anaheim tussle is not family entertainment

Anaheim is no Orlando. For one thing, no palmetto bugs.

But I sometimes wonder whether the Walt Disney Co. would gladly introduce the legendary insects in Southern California if it could somehow turn Anaheim into Orlando.

How vexing our Orange County city must be to the Disney people, who look at Disneyland and California Adventure and wonder what in the world they have to do to convince Anaheim who butters its bread.

No such problem at Walt Disney World in Orlando, where the company quietly bought up 42 square miles of groves, pastures and swamps in the 1960s and came to control everything on it. The end result was a world-class resort area that turns a billion-dollar profit on its original investment of a few million dollars.

No messy problems down there with city council members who support housing developments where Disney doesn’t want them, or with some businessmen and residents who want to vote on Disney expansion plans.

Disney must be wondering what happened to the notion that it owned Anaheim.

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At the moment, we have the prospect of dueling ballot initiatives in Anaheim. Disney wants voters to have a say on any zoning changes within the Resort District around Disneyland, such as the one approved by the City Council in April that would allow a large housing project.

To counter Disney’s initiative, a coalition of business owners and residents said earlier this month it would collect signatures for an initiative that would give voters control over Disney’s planned third theme park.

Disney already has succeeded on another front. It got enough signatures to force a referendum on the council’s specific decision to allow a housing project.

If you’re keeping score, that’s two initiatives and one referendum on the docket.

Is that any way to run a city?

Nobody asked me, but my answer would be no.

We ask voters to elect city councils, but not to make planning decisions. Maybe we should, this being a democracy and all, but if we ask voters to put in as much time as council members do on big-ticket items like this, why have councils at all?

That’s a subject for another day.

The way it should work is for the council members to clearly state their positions -- which they have -- and then let voters have their say on election day. Anaheim doesn’t let voters determine the terms of contracts or business licenses or capital improvements, so why zoning?

What makes this issue so juicy, however, is the range of opinion among the five council members. And I’ve now painted myself into a corner where I must be honest: All the arguments have some persuasiveness to them.

In general, members Curt Pringle and Harry Sidhu side with Disney, arguing that the entertainment giant is indispensable to Anaheim’s well-being. Lorri Galloway is the staunch defender of adding low cost housing to the city and has championed that around the Resort District. And, if I hear them correctly, members Bob Hernandez and Lucille Kring cast their lot with property owners, saying that they should be given the benefit of the doubt unless a particular project is injurious to the city. And neither one thinks the housing project would harm the Resort District.

Hernandez put the argument as well as can be when, in talking to Times reporter Dave McKibben recently, he said, “If Disney would just call off this whole thing and let the City Council run things instead of them trying to call the shots....”

I would say “Amen” to that in this sense: Galloway, Kring and Hernandez all understand the Disney argument. They are not anti-Disney. They just don’t think the housing project that has stirred the controversy is a bad one.

That’s what council members are elected to decide.

Hernandez went on to tell McKibben that the housing project made more sense than a resort hotel-condo mix, which Disney would have supported. “We don’t have developers clamoring to build hotels on those sites,” Hernandez said, adding that it was unreasonable to force a property owner to bank on a resort-oriented business that may never materialize. “That is so arrogant,” Hernandez said. “It just goes beyond logic.”

The Pringle-Sidhu argument is that Anaheim has no better friend than Disney, and why irritate your friends? They have said they are not anti-housing; just that it doesn’t have to be in that specific neighborhood. They say the resort area is the city’s economic engine, a vital component in providing local services.

As has been the case with this issue all along, it operates on two tracks: the specific details of a project and the broader philosophical question of who calls the shots.

Disney would love to make the decisions itself. It can’t.

Palmetto bugs and all, Anaheim isn’t Orlando.

Anaheim is what it is: a city with five council members elected to make the tough decisions.

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons


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