Voters in Loma Linda could soon make decisions that greatly affect how the San Bernardino County city of 21,000 people grows. Referendums of two specific plans that call for a total of 2,400 housing units are likely to appear on the June 2006 ballot. And petitions for a general plan initiative are currently circulating.
The ballot measures could limit development in Loma Linda. The referendums would block two mixed-use developments. The general plan initiative would mandate a mininum lot size of 7,200 square feet for single-family parcels and change into a number of "smart growth" provisions in a proposed general plan that is nearing adoption.
The issues for the slow-growth advocates are primarily traffic and density. They fear that more residential units will jam the streets with cars, and that higher densities will ruin the city's atmosphere.
"Uncontrolled high-density urban development would permanently alter the unique character of the city as a quiet university town surrounded by open spaces, including undeveloped hills, and agricultural and citrus producing lands," the group Save Loma Linda states in its general plan initiative petition. "Such development would also threaten the public health, safety and welfare by causing increased traffic congestion, associated air pollution, noise and higher crime rates."
Loma Linda is unique among the many small- to medium-sized cities in the Los Angeles Basin. As the home of Loma Linda University and an associated health services center, and a large Veterans Administration hospital, Loma Linda is the only small city in the Inland Empire that qualifies as job rich. The workers and students push the city's daytime population to about 60,000 people, according to city Planning Director Deborah Woldruff. Additionally, Loma Linda is largely a Seventh-day Adventist community, as the university and medical center are operated by the Adventist church. The city also is one of the very few — along with neighboring Redlands — in the Inland Empire that has an active slow-growth movement.
Loma Linda Mayor Floyd Peterson, a 15-year member of the City Council, said residents want everything: A big research university, a major and expanding medical center, a popular VA hospital — plus large-lot residences and no traffic congestion.
"You can't connect all those dots," Peterson said.
At the center of nearly every growth controversy for many years has been the South Hills, approximately 3,000 acres of largely undeveloped land that serves as the city's backdrop. Developers have eyed the hills enviously for years, but city residents and officials have held back the growth forces. In 1993, Loma Linda voters approved a ballot measure to restrict development in hillside areas to large lots ranging from 2.5 to 10 acres, depending on the slope. Measure B, which received 53% of the vote, also reduced the buildout of a 2,600-acre hillside area from 1,700 homes to 600. The city itself owns about 800 acres in the South Hills.
"There is something about the hills," said Peterson, who originally ran for the City Council in 1990 to halt large-scale development of the South Hills. "A few people walk up there a lot. A lot of people look at them. When people look out their windows and see hills without any houses on them, it gives them a certain level of comfort."
Not surprisingly, planning for the South Hills has been a major component of a general plan update that is now in its fifth year. The proposed general plan would permit up roughly 1,200 houses in the South Hills, mostly in clusters, with the bulk of the land remaining open space. In recent weeks, city officials have negotiated an alternative with South Hills landowners and some slow-growth advocates. The number of housing units would be about the same, but there would be general plan policies requiring density transfers and credits. The idea, Woldruff said, is to get landowners to give up areas so they may be preserved for open space.
The City Council could make a decision on the South Hills and the entire general plan this month — after 18 workshops, 17 public hearings and 6 study sessions. "This is probably the most evaluated general plan in the history of Southern California," Woldruff said.
Peterson said the alternative approach to the hills resolves the most contentious issue in town. But members of Save Loma Linda are not convinced.
"I think the citizens of Loma Linda have a higher standard," Save Loma Linda organizer Jay Gallant told the Redlands Daily Facts.
Exactly how the general plan initiative would address development in the South Hills is a bit unclear. The measure would appear to permit development of 5- and 10-acre parcels on the majority of the land, but the total number of new houses would appear to be less than half the number allowed by the city's new alternative.
"The reality," Woldruff said of the initiative, "is you would probably have 10-acre ranchettes sprinkled throughout the hills in a way that no one would be able to enjoy the hills except for the rich."
The initiative's city-wide 7,200-square-foot minimum lot size responds to a density issue that rose to prominence with the city's approval in October of the University Village and Orchard Park specific plans. The projects in total would place about 2,400 single- and multi-family housing units and 1 million square feet of commercial development on 300 acres. The projects would introduce new concepts to Loma Linda, such as mixed-use buildings and row houses. Lewis Operating Corps would develop University Village; a consortium that includes Holland Partners is behind the Orchard Park proposal.
Peterson said the projects are exactly the sort of growth Loma Linda needs. "In California, we've got to get people closer to where they work," he said.
But referendum supporters decry the dense developments, small lots and — primarily — the traffic that would come from the projects. Project opponents have suggested they might support about half as many housing units as the city approved, and possibly more commercial development on the site.
Woldruff contended that traffic concerns are overblown and that congestion is unrelated to housing development. "Once rush hour is over, traffic disappears. You can drive almost unimpeded through the city," she said.
Not so, says Save Loma Linda, whose website states: "The new general plan will add thousands of residents to our town and yet the study concludes that they can decrease daily car trips. We can only assume that the City Council expects all the new residents to ride the bus or ride bikes and walk around town."
Whether voters find the driving to be smooth sailing could determine Loma Linda's growth for years to come.