No Compromise on Standards Throughout 2015

A ripple of discontent rolled through San Marino in the past year. Standard operating procedure and incumbency carried little weight, and there were consequences for those who had raised the community’s ire.
Amid an uproar over teardowns that gave way to out-sized new homes, the Design Review Committee — charged with approving such projects — underwent a thorough makeover at midyear. Through expired terms and resignations, four of the five seats changed hands, and one of the newcomers, Bharat Patel, made an unprecedented leap into the chairmanship.
But displeasure still simmered over that issue and many others — including how the city was spending its money — and when two-term City Councilmen Dennis Kneier and Eugene Sun sat for re-election in the fall, they were thrown out of office convincingly by Dr. Steven Huang and Steve Talt. Each campaigned on maintaining the personality of San Marino’s neighborhoods and opening up the process by which the city marshals its financial resources.
As a new year arrives, the rumblings have not entirely subsided. San Marino’s firefighters and the city have been locked in a labor negotiation stalemate for months, with staffing for the city’s fire engine a key sticking point. The firefighters want to have four people on the engine every time it goes out for a call. In the interest of cutting costs, the City Council is inclined to reduce that, at times, to three.
Also in 2015, San Marino wrestled with water restrictions in the face of the West’s historic drought, celebrated the CIF championship of the San Marino High School football team, and welcomed some major capital improvements, including a new entry complex at the Huntington Library, the Circle Drive Bridge and the inner pathway loop at Lacy Park.
Disgruntled residents have made their way to City Council meetings in a steady parade over the past couple of years, some showing before-and-after photos of what was happening to San Marino’s neighborhoods. They complained of what they described as a disturbing building trend: One-story ranch homes from mid-century were being reduced to rubble, and rising in their places were grandiose edifices that seemed to have no integration with their surroundings.
Of concern to council members was that Planning and Building Director Aldo Cervantes would recommend to the Design Review Committee that a particular project be denied, but it was approved anyway.
“For the past year and a half, two years, people have been concerned about massive-looking homes and intrusion on privacy,” Councilman Dr. Richard Sun said in May.
After getting strongly worded input from Planning Commission Chairman Howard Brody in a joint meeting (“DRC decisions are sometimes horrific,” he said), the council resolved to change the composition of that body. Two slots came open when the terms of two DRC members expired. Two others resulted from resignations. By the end of July, there were four new members: Patel, Kevin Cheng, William Dietrick and Frank Hsu, as well as new alternatates John Dustin and Corinna Wong.
It seems to have put the brakes on approvals of controversial designs. And maybe even blocked some relatively benign ones. “Some people make a comment that the pendulum swings right back to the other side now,” Mayor Dr. Allan Yung said. “We believe that people now understand what they have to do.”
Added City Manager John Schaefer: “I think people feel like the DRC is more aligned with the feeling of the community. They’re putting a higher degree of scrutiny on teardowns and two-story homes.”
A contract negotiation between the city and the firefighters’ union went public at the end of September when Nathan Foth, president of the union, chose the occasion of a Chamber of Commerce luncheon to lash out at Schaefer over proposed cuts to the fire operations budget. The rift intensified a few weeks later at a mayor’s forum, when firefighters rose as one and walked out of the room after Schaefer urged them to listen to his presentation on the public safety tax measure.
The city is trying to rein in a Fire Department budget that rose from $4.4 million to $5.4 million to $6.1 million in three years’ time. It seeks to reduce overtime costs by running the engine with three firefighters rather than four on some occasions. Foth said the city could suffer substantial property loss with reduced staffing, since the Fire Department cannot send two firefighters into a burning home if there are not also two others to stay with the truck.
Currently, the contract negotiation is awaiting the formation of a three-member panel — comprising a labor representative, a management representative and a fact finder — which will make a recommendation to the City Council.
Given the fiscal prudence of the current City Council — new member Huang has indicated he is willing to consider running three on the truck — it’s believed the council will ultimately impose a contract stipulating that staffing level.
San Marino High School’s football team rolled up some lopsided victories early in its season this fall, but that didn’t necessarily provide a clue to its playoff prospects, because the opposition was considered pretty weak. But notice was issued that this team was something special when it knocked off its chief Rio Hondo League rival, Monrovia, 49-14, in mid-October.
The Titans then stormed to the CIF-Southern Section Central Division championship, the fifth such title in school history, beating Charter Oak of Covina, 45-28.
In the championship run, a community was electrified, as people turned out to pack Titan Stadium and cheer on the players. They responded with a school-record 15 victories in a season that finally ended with a loss in the state title game.
“It was something really special, not just for the players and coaches but for the whole community,” said wide receiver JP Shohfi, who led the nation in receiving yardage while hauling in the passes of quarterback Carson Glazier. “It was amazing to see the stands filled. … This is something the whole community will look back on in the reunions.”
The edict came dow from Gov. Jerry Brown at the beginning of April: In order to save water during one of the worst droughts in California’s history, it would no longer be permissible to water lawn on the medians of public thoroughfares. The lush swaths down the center of Huntington Drive and Sierra Madre Boulevard, among San Marino’s signature features, were not long for this world.
The City Council ordered almost immediately that the sprinklers be shut off, sacrificing the grass to water conservation. Drip irrigation was installed to preserve the trees on the medians, but the council early this month elected to eschew a turf-removal rebate of nearly $40,000 and not convert two of the median segments to drought-tolerant landscapes.
Meanwhile, residents were ordered to cut back on their irrigation schedules and to water more efficiently. Scofflaws have been warned, then fined, for abuses.

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