Claremont Insider: Parsing a Train Wreck

Monday, January 14, 2008

Parsing a Train Wreck


As we've remarked previously, observing the debate over the Base Line Rd. affordable housing project one sees these things unfold with the inevitability of a train wreck, gathering a momentum all their own.

Rationally, we'd step back, sit both sides down, and work out a compromise. Claremont, however, is held hostage on this issue and many others by a certain kind of moralizing self-righteousness on the part the people who control things - the Claremont League of Women Voters (LWV), the Claremont 400, and many members of the City Council and city commissions.

The moral certitude with which this power group conducts itself approaches a religious fervor and precludes any reasonable compromise, as we hope to illustrate with this post.


What generally happens with something like this affordable housing proposal is that an idea gets floated - We need affordable housing. There's a site on Base Line. We're going to build it there! - before any real analysis is done.

Because the LWV and Claremont 400 spend so much time talking to themselves rather than people outside their group, the initial idea quickly becomes set in concrete without any contrary information being allowed into the pre-public decision making. The views of important stakeholders, such as people who actually live near the proposed projects, are overlooked. The thing becomes a done deal, and only then do the public meetings begin.

And in the meetings (that precious "process" the LWV loves so much), the LWV and Claremont 400 work with city staff ahead of time to stack things in their favor. For instance, in the Padua Sports Park environmental impact report (EIR) hiring a person who falsely indicated he had a Ph.D in biology to do the biology section of the report (the Ph.D was in theology and was purchased for $100 from the Universal Life Church). Naturally, the biology report found there would be no significant impacts caused by the project, even though the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service submitted opinions to the contrary.

Because the League and the 400 control virtually every commission and committee in town, they are able to plant landmines a long time ahead that prevent or preclude certain arguments against projects. For instance, LWV member Sharon Hightower, who is also a former Planning Commissioner, also chaired the City's General Plan Citizen's Advisory Committee. The LWV and the General Plan Committee made sure to plant geographical distribution as one of the goals for affordable housing. This meant that finding a location for affordable housing North Claremont automatically became a requirement. Since there the League was already pushing for the site on Base Line Rd., they could now argue that there were no alternatives to the Base Line Project that met the city's goals - goals written by the LWV.

(Hightower's General Plan committee did a similar thing with Padua Park, recommending rezoning the old Holliday Rock gravel pit at Base Line Rd. and Padua Ave. from open space to a mixed-use designation. They seemed to do this in order to remove the Holliday pit, which is a superior to the Padua site, as an alternative to the the Padua Sports Park project.)

Hightower and the LWV do these sorts of things because they have a much better understanding of the process than the average citizen. They do control it after all, and they use their mastery of the process to their advantage. Councilmember Ellen Taylor did the same thing at the January 8th City Council meeting when she tried to get the council to certify the Base Line Project EIR while also removing from consideration any of the superior alternative sites.

Unfortunately, the League and the 400's gaming of the system also works to greatly increase the average citizen's distrust of the League and the city. Worse, or better depending on your perspective, their actions diminish their own credibility and legitimacy.


What makes the process even more unfair is that the two sides of the debate are frequently held to two different standards. For the LWV and the Claremont 400, there is one standard in which anything they say is accepted as gospel. For their opponents, on the other hand, no amount of factual information matters. The opponents will always be wrong. They are so wrong, in fact, that we don't have to listen to them at all.

Saturday's Claremont Courier noted a good example of this. Karen Vance, the League's lead person for affordable housing, spoke at the January 8th council meeting. (Vance spoke during the general public comment period at the beginning of the meeting and did not address the actual Environmental Impact Report issues for the project, so she wasn't listed in our catalogue of League-affiliated speakers.)

Vance in her comments addressed concerns of people whose kids go to Condit Elementary School. The Condit parents are apparently worried that because the kids from the Base Line Rd. project would go to Condit, leading to possible over-crowded class rooms. Because Condit is a higher performing elementary, it's a desirable school for some parents in the Claremont Unified School District. But, the thinking goes, with the affordable housing in place, kids who are currently there on an intra-district transfer might not be allowed in at Condit in the future.

Condit parents are also concerned about class sizes becoming too large if kids from the affordable housing and other proposed Base Line Rd. developments end up at Condit. Vance, however, said last Tuesday that she had met with CUSD Superintendent David Cash and that Mr. Cash had assured her that there were going to be no adverse impacts to Condit from the Base Line Project. The Courier article stated:
Another speaker, Karen Vance, a low-income housing advocate for the League of Women Voters, said she had assurances from Claremont Unified School District Superintendent David Cash that Condit Elementary School had enough space for all the additional children that were brought into the city by the affordable housing project and other housing developments along Baseline Road. She also said no child would be transferred out of Condit Elementary due to the influx of new students.

In her comments, Vance mentioned Cash several times, saying in her opening remarks, "Superintendent Cash understands these fears..." Cash, however, seemed to dispute Vance's characterization of his meeting with her, the Courier said:
“Karen Vance does not represent me or the Claremont Unified School District,” Superintendent Cash said, when reached by phone on Thursday. “We are gladly willing to teach every child living in the district, but there is absolutely no way to guarantee placement of students at any of our schools … We have standard guidelines for doing that.”

If the Courier had not bothered to contact Superintendent Cash, Vance's statements would have stood as fact. Given the way things work in town, they may still stand as truth. But, we now have reason to question Vance's veracity on this point.

Watch the video of Vance's remarks and note the certitude with which she speaks. Further, watch as a clearly emotional Vance frames her opponents as being afraid of facts, as using fear to keep the Base Line Rd. project from going through. She really seems to be calling people opposed to the project bad people. It's not enough that their arguments are incorrect:

Karen Vance speaking at the 1/8/2008 council meeting at the Hughes Center as Citizen Michael John Keenan and others look on.


We were a bit surprised by Vance's speech last week. Vance has in the past struck us as being fairly level-headed, moderate, and at least willing to listen fairly to opinions other than her own. But given Superintendent Cash's quote, she was far from on solid ground in her comments last week.

Vance, in relating her meeting with the superintendent, invoked the word "reason" several times, and at one point said, "We have just now learned the rational, objective facts." She went on to make a point of telling the council that it was her fear-mongering opponents who were the irrational ones.

Yet, Vance and the League have continued to ignore the rational, objective facts presented in the EIR for the Base Line Rd. Project. Facts like those from the USC School of Medicine's study which, we have noted again and again, are the result of a 10-year, peer-reviewed research study published last year in The Lancet medical journal.

No one made the results of those studies up or mischaracterized them. No affordable housing opponent worked on the study's report. Those findings state that children living within 500 feet of a major highway will have a higher incidence of impaired lung development. Period.

So, it's simply a lie for the League to continue to say that everyone in the Claremont area faces the very same risk. The USC study clearly distinguishes between the risk of a 500-foot or less proximity and living outside that distance from a freeway. Within 500-feet of a freeway equals a much higher risk than farther away. The risks are not equal.

Additionally, the League and other project proponents have a peculiar and flawed notion of the risk involved here. They keep arguing that it is not up to us to decide for the potential project residents whether the risks are tolerable or not. They also say that the risks can be avoided by getting the project residents to sign waivers of liability. However, the risk here is not the future residents' risk.

The risk everyone, including the League, is talking about is the risk of future litigation the city would assume by building this project. And the idea that a waiver would protect the city is false. The risk here is really no different than the risk the city took on when it took ownership of the wilderness park, and we all know what happened there in 2003. $17.5 million is an awful lot to pay for underestimating or ignoring a risk.

In this case, City Attorney Sonia Carvalho knows that in California a parent cannot sign away a child's right to sue. Why she does not correct this misapprehension is a mystery.

And the League's claim that mitigation for the pollution hazard can be provided in the form of air filters has two obvious flaws. First, as USC researcher Ed Avol wrote in a letter to the Courier, there is no guarantee that the filters would be maintained. Second, people living in the units would become virtual prisoners under the League's proposal. They would not be able to go outside or to leave their windows and doors open. They would live in hermetically sealed bubbles (which, come to think of it, is kind of how the League operates).

No, it's time for the Vance and the League to set aside their emotions and to look at alternative proposals, which are the only real, rational choices that can be made. No matter what the League may think of people who have voiced opposition to the project, the environmental concerns raised by the city's own EIR for the project cannot be easily ignored or cast aside.