Walnut expands battle with Mt. SAC, adding stadium expansion and solar project to list

Walnut threatens to stop Mt. SAC Hilmer Lodge Stadium expansion, other college projects /March 12, 2015

WALNUT >> The City Council escalated the war with Mount San Antonio College Wednesday night, saying it will try to stop other projects, including a $62 million upgrade to Hilmer Lodge Stadium that comes with a play to host the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in 2020.

“The city of Walnut fully intends to enforce city zoning code regulations, city general plan guidelines and state land use law as it pertains to any proposed development at Mount San Antonio College,” the city posted on its website Thursday.

The widening gulf between the upper middle class suburb and the largest community college in California — located within the city limits — comes after a yearlong battle in which neighbors, and then the city, have demanded Mt. SAC not build a five-story parking garage adjacent to Walnut homes off Mountaineer Road.

While that battle continues, the city wants veto power over: the stadium project, set to break ground this summer; a 13,500-square-foot food court with seating for 290 people; a 10,000-square foot fire academy/training tower and a solar-power generation system to be built on land west of Grand Avenue or on top of the proposed parking structure in the northwest part of campus.

Walnut is poised to file a lawsuit against the college, saying its parking garage project should be subject to city codes and approval. Educational institutions and projects are exempt from municipal zoning but must gain approval from the Division of the State Architect (DSA). Mt. SAC has not sought city approval.

Another legal argument involves whether the parking structure is an “educational classroom” and therefore exempt. But recent court cases in Orange County have challenged community college projects for fast-food restaurants and dormitories, arguing they are commercial or residential, not educational, and must gain local approval.

Mt. SAC recently amended its application to the DSA to add a solar panel project which would be affixed to the top level, said Walnut City Attorney Mike Montgomery.

He claims the solar project is an attempt by Mt. SAC to avoid being subject to Walnut’s zoning codes by adding an energy element. Energy or water-saving projects by state institutions are excluded from local review, he said. In the last few months, Mt. SAC has said the college will also use the structure for firefighter training and for astronomy classes.

“All of a sudden it has a solar panel, before that fireman’s ropes and a telescope? It is not a classroom. It is a parking structure,” Montgomery said at the meeting attended by 30 Timberline residents.

The City Council threw every possible weapon against the college’s expansion plans during the heated meeting Wednesday night in which residents complained the city efforts were “too little, too late.”

One of those ideas would be an outright ban on large trucks on Mountaineer Road, where dump trucks would need to pass to build the $45 million, 2,200-space parking garage. The city has not yet received an excavation permit request from the college, said city staffers, but hinted if it did, it could turn it down.

The city will establish an ad-hoc committee to address Mt. SAC’s projects. The city is considering sending a mailer to all Walnut residents on the city’s position regarding the garage and future college projects. The makeup of the committee will be discussed on March 25, the next City Council meeting, said City Manager Rob Wishner.

Councilman Robert Pacheco intimated the community, or even individual council members, could use political strategies. He mentioned that three of the seven Mt. SAC trustees are up for re-election in November: Fred Chyr, Roseanne Bader and Manuel Baca.

“These folks are concerned about their re-election,” he said during the meeting. Pacheco added: “We are going to keep their feet to the fire.”

Frustrated Walnut residents, who agree with the city’s stance that the parking structure will hurt property values and could snarl traffic further, said they want more than talk.

“This snail’s pace isn’t going to work,” said Layla Abou-Taleb, a Timberline resident and a member of resident group opposing the parking garage. “What we need from you is action.”

The residents wanted Walnut to file its lawsuit. Council members and staff spoke vaguely about legal remedies but said they could not speak about them in a public session.

Montgomery told the Council that he recently learned that letters from the City Council objecting to the parking garage were never delivered to the Mt. SAC board. “They are absolutely arrogant. It is pretty clear litigation is going to result,” he said.


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About Steve Scauzillo

I love journalism. I've been working in journalism for 32 years. I love communicating and now, that includes writing about environment, transportation and the foothill/Puente Hills communities of Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, Walnut and Diamond Bar. I write a couple of columns, one on fridays in Opinion and the other, The Green Way, in the main news section. Send me ideas for stories. Or comments. I was opinion page editor for 12 years so I enjoy a good opinion now and then.