Rough road for Greenbelt path proposal
by Ryan McDonald
A proposal to build a path of stable material on the Greenbelt in Hermosa Beach, in order to improve access for those with mobility issues, faces an uncertain future after elected officials raised questions about the plan’s legality and consistency with the wishes of the city’s residents.
The City Council unanimously voted Tuesday night to direct staff to further explore the issue by working with accessibility advocates, the Public Works Commission and the City Attorney’s office. But these inquiries will be limited by legal constraints on modifying the Greenbelt, and would have an indefinite timeline. Councilmember Hany Fangary asked that new information be brought back to the council by the mid-year budget workshop, or “whenever it is ready for us to discuss.”
The proposal, which in one version would have laid a path of decomposed granite along the length of the Greenbelt, has convulsed city politics since last summer when it appeared before the council without first going through the Public Works Commission. Opponents worried the path could compromise an “oasis” running through the town. Backers, meanwhile, countered that that oasis was mostly off limits to those dependent on wheelchairs, people with canes and walkers, and parents trying to push baby-laden strollers.
“I’d like to partake of the same opportunities as everyone else,” said Geoff Hirsch, a resident and accessibility activist, at the meeting.
Tuesday night’s debate over the Greenbelt plan was mostly confined to practical and legal obstacles. Councilmembers cited a lengthy list of other pending public works projects in the city, many of which, including the reconstruction of 8th Street, would also enhance accessibility. And they also said that it was not clear whether the existing law allowed the proposed modifications to the Greenbelt.
Once home to a length of railroad belonging to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., the Greenbelt was created through Proposition F, an initiative passed by voters in 1989. The initiative placed strict limits on improvements that could be made to the Greenbelt — limits that could only be lifted by another vote of the people.
Councilmember Justin Massey said that, apart from the wisdom of the plan or its affordability, there was a “threshold issue” of whether erecting a path was lawful without changing the law via the ballot box. Under the zoning designation for the area, the city code permits “landscaping” but not “hardscaping.” Comprehensive definitions of the terms were elusive, but Massey said that a permanent pathway clearly fell within the latter category.
“It’s clear to me that the answer to that threshold question is No: building an accessible pathway is not within the zoning,” for the area Massey said.
This conclusion, shared by Councilmember Hany Fangary, differed slightly with the interpretation offered by City Attorney Michael Jenkins. Jenkins raised the issue of legal impediments to the path last June when the plan first came before the City Council. He wrote a legal brief that the city agreed to release to the public this week in redacted form. On Tuesday, Jenkins said that the law governing the Greenbelt was shrouded in ambiguity, but that it was possible to interpret the code as allowing a path so long as it did not alter the “fundamental character” of the area.
“Their conclusion is reasonable,” Jenkins said of Massey and Fangary, both of whom are attorneys. “Where I part ways is, it’s not the only possible conclusion.”
Interpreting the intent of a ballot measure passed nearly three decades ago was helped somewhat by the long-lived dedication of Hermosa politicians. Former Council member George Schmeltzer said that strictness of the measure’s limitations came from a desire to prevent the railroad company from developing the land for houses and condos. And two of the three authors of Proposition F, former council members Chuck Sheldon and Jim Rosenberger, consulted with council members leading up to the meeting.
Speaking during public comment, Rosenberger said that at the time the ballot measure was crafted, proponents could not have conceived of the Greenbelt including a path to provide access to wheelchairs and strollers. He urged the council to slow down on the issue, and carefully consider the area’s history as well as the implications of future changes.
“Was it ‘all of the public’? I don’t think that was thought of at the time,” he said.
Among the possibilities staff will consider is a compromise suggested by City Manager Sergio Gonzalez under which, instead of building a path, the city could remove wood chips from a segment of the trail, leaving hard-packed dirt over which a wheelchair or stroller could tread. Removing the chips would likely not qualify as an improvement under the code, though grading the area might.