Marymount College seeks voter approval for campus remodel, new student housing

It was about 10 years ago that Marymount College asked Rancho Palos Verdes to approve a campus remodel, a makeover that would include a new library and gym and bring student housing to the ocean-view campus for the first time.

Now, angry at what it says is the agonizingly slow pace of gaining approval for the more than $50-million project, the small Catholic college has decided to take the issue directly to the city’s voters with an initiative on the November ballot.

Marymount’s move is unprecedented in Rancho Palos Verdes, a town of about 42,000 people with multimillion-dollar homes, spectacular ocean views and modest political campaigns.

City Council candidates might spend $40,000, but Marymount’s campaign is expected to go well beyond that. In fact, it may have already exceeded it.

The college has hired a well-known political consultant and lobbyist, set up a website, sent every registered voter in the city pamphlets and a DVD making its case for the project and is running commercials on the cable TV system.

And that’s just to gather the 2,700 signatures to put the initiative on the ballot, an effort being led by two professional firms.

Asked how much Marymount will spend, President Michael Brophy replied, “The best I can offer is the college will resource this initiative campaign so we’ll win.”

Some people in Rancho Palos Verdes think the election’s significance goes well beyond whether Marymount is allowed to build its two dorms. They say that if the initiative wins, it will encourage developers who don’t get their way with the city to take the same route.

“Marymount is small potatoes in the big issue,” said Lois Karp, who led a group that fought the college’s plans. “The big issue is circumventing our local government. The fact is that this city was created to keep developers from ruining this city, and that’s what this kind of initiative does.”

Ken Dyda, a former mayor and one of the leaders in the campaign to incorporate the city in 1973, is forming a group to fight the Marymount proposal.

He said that he’s not taking a stand on the initiative but that he opposes cutting city government out of land-use planning decisions.

“It says, ‘We’re going to sell a project with a lot of campaigning to a large majority of people who don’t take time to be completely informed,’ ” Dyda said. “It’s using slick advertising to circumvent the city.”

Harvey Englander, who is running the campaign for Marymount, compared the initiative to Proposition 13, which frustrated voters passed when the state government refused to lower property taxes.

“None of this is being done in a backroom,” he said. “What’s wrong with letting the people decide?”

Letting voters settle land-use debates is not uncommon. A USC-Caltech study found that from 2000 to 2006, there were 22 land-use ballot initiatives involving large-scale developments in California.

Marymount, which plans to become a four-year school, has long wanted to build dorms on its 26-acre campus. About 60% of its students live in former Navy town houses or in an apartment building the college owns. A shuttle runs between the campus and San Pedro.

Marymount originally received city approval for a remodel around 1980, but it couldn’t raise enough money and the approval expired.

Marymount submitted a new plan in 2000, which included three dorms that could house 300 students. Because of opposition from neighbors who worried that dorms would increase traffic and noise as students partied late into the night, the proposal was scaled back to two two-story dorms for 200 students and then finally dropped.

While a gym, new library and more parking were approved, a battle continued over an athletic field. Finally, Marymount decided to take the initiative with a ballot measure that would ask voters to approve something like its original plans, including the two dorms.