By Katta Hules
Arcadia’s zoning issue continues as anti-mansionization group Saving Arcadia takes it to the ballot. The group wants to restrict new building significantly. Councilmember Roger Chandler calls their ballot initiative “horrific.” “I can’t imagine people would voluntarily want to take away their own property rights to the extent that that one does.” April Verlato, former president of Saving Arcadia, says the ballot initiative just “put[s] forth the zoning code standards that are prevalent throughout the San Gabriel Valley.” Verlato left the group to run for city council.
“Mansionization” or the trend of building larger “mansions” has been going on for at least 20 years, says Verlato. The trend is driven by speculative developers, which she defines as “people who are buying homes to tear them down, build [mansions], and sell them on speculation.” Complaints about mansionization vary, according to current Saving Arcadia President David Arvizu. “You get loss of privacy, loss of your views, overcrowding, and ultimately it ends up costing the city more to maintain.” But, he insists, it is not the fault of the mansion residents who are often unaware how unpopular their houses are.
Saving Arcadia was born out of the Save the Arcadia Highlands (STAH) group, which “started when it was just about the recent development pattern that was happening in the Highlands … There were homes that were out of scale and mass and design compared to the rest of neighborhood,” says Verlato. Arvizu says STAH is “like a neighborhood watch program,” while Saving Arcadia is an official registered group.
Saving Arcadia was created after the city council voted to halt the zoning code reforms indefinitely due to a lawsuit last May. “The city was penalizing the entire city of Arcadia. They were blaming the Highlands and trying to use the Highlands as the scapegoat,” says Verlato. The group put together a ballot initiative because “we had to take action and the only other course that we thought we had was to put it to a vote of the people,” says Arvizu. They modeled the initiative off codes in neighboring cities like San Marino, Sierra Madre, and Monrovia. To that end, it would introduce a Floor Area Ratio (FAR). The American Planning Association website defines FAR as floor area divided by lot area.
The council’s zoning reforms are back at work and would introduce a FAR as well. But, while the plan has concepts similar to the initiative, it is not as comprehensive. Chandler says it will cut “somewhere between eight percent to 15 percent” of property values, while the ballot initiative will cut almost 40 percent. The Saving Arcadia website claims more restrictive zoning will raise property values. Arvizu calls the council’s reforms a “good start” but says it neglects areas without Homeowners Associations (HOAs). “The provisions to the city zoning code are very lenient in terms of the non-HOA areas. I don’t think the non-HOA areas were given proper representation.”
Both Saving Arcadia and STAH have called out the council and, in some cases, individual councilmembers on their perceived inaction. The STAH website calls Chandler “The Bully” and councilmember Sho Tay “Two-Faced.” It points to their campaign donors and resistance to zoning changes.
“People like to exaggerate things,” says Tay. He dismisses the accusation of being influenced by his donors, pointing out the $10,000 donation from “a company that brings foreign investors … and provides them with green cards in exchange for a $1 million investment in a U.S. business,” as STAH calls it is actually from his friend Kin Hui, the CEO of Singpoli Group. “At the time he made the contribution, he [didn’t] have any involvement in Arcadia and said, ‘If I have involvement in Arcadia, Sho will not vote.’” Tay also said he had wanted the council’s proposed reforms to go through an economic study. “I’m a business man … when you do business you also hire consultants to market research everything but when it comes to property values, we don’t, I don’t know why.”
Chandler shrugged the site’s allegations off as well, saying, “they’re a little upset at me because I’ve resisted going to a floor area ratio.” He opposes the FAR “because it never seems to end. It’s gradually eating away at property values.” But, he says, he will vote for the council’s reform because, “I feel it was done fairly.”
Chandler says the Saving Arcadia ballot initiative has passed the signature verification process and will be put before the council who must place it on the ballot sometime before April 2018.