Certainly Sierra Madreans followed the news coverage in Southern California of the historic rainfall of the first week in January, 2005. The Los Angeles Times "Points West" columnist Steve Lopez, on January 14, referred the reader to the author John McPhee and his historic account of what Southern California faces time and time again. You know the headlines: homes sliding down as the unstable hillsides slip their foundations after a drenching rain that follows a chaparral fire.
McPhee's October, 1988 article, entitled "Los Angeles Against the Mountains," published in The New Yorker, was in the hands of the authors of the city's Hillside Ordinance when it was written in 1991. The fact that Sierra Madre dodged the fire/flood cycle this time is just an accident. This is always an accident waiting to happen.
McPhee's article was not the first to discuss the problem. Henry Hellmers published in the May, 1962, issue of Engineering and Science, his article entitled "The San Gabriel Mountains - Man and Nature in Conflict." His first paragraph foreshadows McPhee's later work by stating: "The San Gabriel mountains form a beautiful but potentially dangerous backdrop for the City of Los Angeles and its many suburbs along the foothills ... on these steep slopes everything that isn't mechanically held in place will fall into the canyon bottom."
In the community of La Conchita, along Laurel Canyon and in the hillsides above Glendale, residents and homeowners did not fare very well. As a hillside home was tottering on its foundations, with the ground beneath it slipping onto the homes below, all a city official there could do was ask, "When did we approve this?" Sierra Madre's city council should be proud of not having to wonder aloud of such folly due to the early work of the Hillside Ordinance Task Force Committee.
To further the the safety of the residents of Sierra Madre, the City has included on its Public Access TV Channel 3, a United States Geological Survey Landslide Advisory, due to the recent rainfall here. Item 2, under the heading "Prior to Intense Storms," it is stated that a community should "... support your local government in efforts to develop and enforce land-use and building ordinances that regulate construction in areas susceptible to landslides and debris flow. Buildings should be located away from steep slopes, streams and rivers, intermittent-stream channels, and the mouths of mountain channels."
The City of Sierra Madre has such a land use plan in place, developed by the Hillside Ordinance Task Force. This committee, chaired by Dale Beland of Cotton Beland Associates, Inc, Urban and Environmental Planning Consultants, included representatives of all the hillside property owners of the time, members of the community and a member from the City Council and the Planning Commission. As stated in the introduction, the ordinance was written to protect the hillsides above our foothill village from overdevelopment and the attendant hazards that were identified during the research of the Task Force.
We are sure this is still the goal of the citizens of Sierra Madre, and will be accomplished if the current City Council follows the proactive protective measures of the city's Hillside Ordinance.