Piece of Mind: Civic involvement is best tempered by the facts

The old oaks that arch so gracefully over Commonwealth Avenue north of the boulevard still appear to be thriving, despite the protests of those who were opposed to the installation of sewers in Sewer Assessment District 2 (the neighborhood my husband and I call home) in about 2002. One of their key concerns, these worried citizens said, was that if septic tanks disappeared, so would some of the groundwater the trees relied upon and we would lose these aging beauties. It would seem the trees adapted when the sewer advocates won the day and the septic systems were abandoned, doomsday predictions aside.

We have also apparently escaped thus far the shanty-town look that was predicted during the mid-20th century, when an earlier generation was asked to approve sewers. The display ads that a group of Flintridge homeowners took out in the pages of this newspaper were nothing short of hair-raising. They used to great effect photos of extreme slum areas and warned that the community would look just like that if sewers were approved. The thinking, of course, was that modern sewage systems would encourage more population density and that naturally meant we'd take on the look of a third world country if we installed them.

Those scare tactics did their intended job and the community remained entirely dependent upon septic systems until recent history. (The Flintridge area, it should be noted, is still a holdout and continues to rely on septic systems. Had the earlier residents approved them, they would have long ago been installed and paid in full; this late-in-the-game price tag is nothing short of astronomical. Can you imagine what it will be 10 or 20 years from now? I think there's a cautionary tale there, but I'm not certain anyone needs to have that spelled out.)

There is a natural and necessary tendency to protect one's interests. I get that. We've all worked hard just to have the privilege of calling this little municipality home. We want to make sure it remains a desirous place to return to at the end of a long workday. We want our children to learn their lessons in the safest, most nurturing environment possible. And, let's face it: we take pride in being from La Cañada Flintridge. We'd like out-of-towners to point at our handsome city with at least a little bit of envy.

So, we do what we can to preserve the relative quiet here, the beauty (both natural and trucked in by landscapers) and the high quality of the schools. But sometimes I think we let ourselves get a little too wild-eyed, if you will. Last month, when I was on the receiving end of a hysterical emailed petition that gave the impression that La Cañada is going to straight to hell because of pending zoning changes that will allow for affordable housing, I was aghast. The anonymous email loudly suggested —no, threatened — that we will have homeless people, drug addicts and sex offenders living so close to the La Cañada Elementary School that our children's safety will be in peril and our property values will plummet. It was nothing short of fearmongering, much like the anti-sewer folks from decades ago stirred up to strike angst in the hearts of local residents. I saw shades of the Red Scare talk that was so prevalent here in our conservative area during the Cold War.

In recent days, perhaps because city officials have taken some pains to answer their questions, the rhetoric by the petitioners has softened. For that we can be grateful. It is not that these concerned citizens should not speak up at all; their points are of course valid, as long as they base them on facts. This might have been possible earlier, had they accepted the invitation every one of us was issued in recent years to participate in discussions about the General Plan, or if they'd regularly attended public meetings in City Hall. Instead, they came late to the subject, panicked, acted as though the city had been trying to pull the wool over everyone's eyes and exaggerated the affordable housing element to others who were equally uninformed.

Change and yes, even progress, are bound to come to this town. We should stay abreast of the local news, give our input, then hold our elected officials responsible for good outcomes. But we just cannot allow ourselves to buy into hysterical claims, especially not ones that predict skid rows are going to crop up in our piece of paradise.

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CAROL CORMACI is the managing editor. Email her at carol.cormaci@latimes.com.

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