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By Susan Motander
On Tuesday, three members of the Monrovia City Council voted unanimously to certify the Environment Impact Report (EIR) and adopt the Mitigation Monitoring and Reporting Program (MMRP). This clears the way to implement the Minimalist Plan Alternative to the opening the Wilderness Preserve with some additional restrictions.
Before the matter was outlined by city staff, commented upon by members of the packed audience, or discussed by the council, three members declared conflicts of interest as they live adjacent to the Wilderness Preserve area. With Mayor Mary Ann Lutz, and Council Members Tom Adams and Joe Garcia all recusing themselves, only two members were left. City Attorney Craig Steele explained that the Council could not act or vote on any matter with only two members voting. He explained that under the circumstances the council must rely on the Rule of Legally Required Participation. Under these circumstances, state law requires that one of the council members declaring a conflict be selected by lot to engage in the discussion and vote on the matter in order to create a quorum, three aye votes being required to adopt a resolution.
Preparing for this contingency, prior to the meeting, Craig had cut short one coffee stirrer ( in lieu of a straw) and asked Lutz, Garcia and Adams each to pull a “straw” from his clenched fist. Garcia drew the short stirrer and hence participating in the discussion and ultimately the vote. After Lutz and Adams left the Council Chambers, Garcia, as Mayor Pro Tem presided over the agenda item in question. It was a lesson in municipal government most had not anticipated.
City Staff including Community Services Director April Soash, Fire Chief Chris Donavon, Planning Division Manager Craig Jimenez and Recreation and Library Division Manager Michele Thompkins, described the history of the EIR and MMRP as well as outlining the Mission and Goals of the Wilderness Preserve. In addition they outlined the various plans for a Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the Preserve. All of this information is available on line at the city’s web site: www.cityofmonrovia.org.
After the staff report and a few questions from the three remaining Council Members, the floor was opened to the public for comment. And for more than four hours, the public commented. Some were opposed to any plan to open the Wilderness Preserve. Some spoke in favor of the minimalist plan which was ultimately adopted. Others spoke in favor of other plans which would give greater access to the Preserve and require the addition of parking lots, bathrooms and drinking fountains as well as adding additional trails in the area. Many of those who spoke were new to the process but others were familiar faces to those who have been following the issue for years.
Cindy Gertmanian read a letter from a Traffic Engineer which challenged the findings of the engineer who prepared the portion of the EIR dealing with Traffic. This study doubled the number of daily trips to the Preserve from the original report. Even before the public input, Steele, the City Attorney, had noted that this study had been received and that the corrected numbers had been incorporated into the EIR as presented to the council.
Michael Silverstein, an attorney representing some of the residents opposed to the EIR and the plan to open the Wilderness Preserve, said that the EIR should have been recirculated after the correction of traffic numbers. He also called the EIR “fatally flawed” for this and other reasons which he outlined to the council.
Also speaking on Tuesday was Pam Suess, who along with her husband, Tom, had retained Silverstein to sue the city in 2009 when it adopted a plan for the Wilderness Preserve after declaring that an EIR was not required. The city rescinded its 2009 action several months after adopting it rather than face the cost of litigating the issue according to the city staff report to the council. This is what had led to the EIR and plans being acted upon on Tuesday.
Suess addressed several of her new concerns regarding the plan which would open the Preserve. She said that her dog which had been attacked recently by a mountain lion was on the mend, but that she feared that in opening up the area there would be attacks on people. She also objected to what she called a violation of “civil rights” giving the public access to the area by “going across private property.” Her final point was that this area was not a park, but that south side residents were crying for a park in their area and suggested that a park there was more desirable than trying to turn the Preserve into a Park.
Suess’s father, Clyde Stelling also spoke to the council addressing them from a chair provided for him. Stelling told the council that his inability to stand while addressing them was the result of being “caught” in the Curve Fire several years ago when he was trapped by the fire near his cabin in the fire area. He explained that the injuries he sustained then resulted in his current infirmities. He told the council that fire had been caused by people lighting candles in the area. Stelling said that fires in such area are usually caused by people who were not residents and did not know the dangers present in such an area.
Delores Reid, who identified herself as one of two homeowners who “own” the road by which the city plan gave access to the preserve from Cloverleaf, objected to the city’s plan. She said that she and the other homeowner had given easements to public utilities and the department but not the city. She said the plan would spoil the quality of life and lowering of property values for herself and her neighbors.
Roger Northrop, who identified himself as the president of the Hidden Valley Property Owners, questioned the replacement of the consultants, LSA, which early in the process had advised the council against using Cloverleaf as an access point to the Wilderness Preserve. Northrop also expressed concern about the traffic congestion problems in the area noting the limited access to the area. He also discussed the potential of fire in the area pointing out the danger as there is a heavy fuel load in the area which has not burned in over 50 years. He was fearful of people starting a fire. “Rattlesnakes don’t cause fires. Bears don’t cause fires. Mountain Lion don’t cause fires. Lightning rarely starts fires,” he said.
Others who spoke questioned the security of scouts at Camp Trask in the advent of a fire, the potential liability of the city if someone were injured in the preserve and others wondered about the potential increase of illegal activity in the area necessitating additional police action. These are only a sampling of the wide range of comments on, and objections to the project and to the EIR.
There were however some who made other suggestions. Among these was Harjit Soni while opposed to the plans presented to the council, he did make an interesting and original suggestions. He proposed that shuttle buses take people from Old Town up to the Wilderness Preserve with trained guides leading tours of the area. He pointed out that this would limit but provide more secure access, enable accountability for and of the individuals in the Preserve, and give a boost to Old Town Merchants. He noted that there was already parking in the Old Town and that parking near or in the Preserve would not be necessary.
In all approximately twenty five people spoke to the issue. Originally 32 people had indicated a desire to speak, but as the meeting dragged on past midnight, several speakers apparently gave up as names of those who had filled out speaker slips were called with no response.
The three remaining council members discussed the EIR and the various plans. After asking staff and the city attorney several questions, Council Member Becky Shevlin moved that the council adopt Resolution 2012-07 with additional provisions. This certified the EIR and adopted the MMRP. It also put in place the Minimalist Plan for access to and management of the Wilderness Preserve “with the additional recommendations not to open the loop of the Lower Clamshell Motorway to public access where Braunton’s milk vetch is present until further evaluation to ensure that the proper mitigation measures are implemented, and adhering to the Interpretative Goals and Objectives and Use Goals and Objective regarding education and signage to ensure all Monrovians have access to information and use of the Wilderness Preserve.” Shevlin added two other provisions, one of which required city staff to work with property owners to resolve access and easement issues, and the other required them and the city engineer to work with the residents to resolve parking and traffic issues. Her motion also included a formal review of the progress of the plan every six months.
Her motion was seconded by Council Member Larry Spicer and carried unanimously, 3-0. After all this the remainder of the council rejoined their colleagues and the meeting continued adjourning in the early morning hours with more than five hours spent on this one issue.