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Council to vote on art museum Tuesday

As the Claremont City Council prepares to weigh in on a controversial zone change that would pave the way for a new museum on May 24, a group of citizens is threatening litigation.

The group, known as “Citizens to Save College Avenue,” is urging the council to reject the zone change and the Pomona College Master Plan, which would move the historic Renwick House from its current location across the street to the southeast corner of College Avenue and Second Street.

“Citizens to Save College Avenue” is represented by attorney Amy Minteer of Hermosa Beach-based firm Chatten-Brown and Carstens. Ms. Minteer also serves on the California Preservation Fund’s Board of Trustees.

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In a letter to the city council dated April 8, Ms. Minteer stated that the current zoning is actually compatible with the city’s general plan, in that the institutional land-use designation “does not prohibit residential uses” on the property, and touted compliance with the Claremont Village Design Plan (CVDP) as a basis to reject the zone change.

“The west side of College Avenue, including the College Avenue properties, is within Area III of the [CVDP],” Ms. Minteer wrote. “Area III is residentially focused with a small amount of commercial. This area is intended to serve as a buffer between Pomona College and the Village.”

If the council did not reject the zone change and the master plan, Ms. Minteer wrote that the group would “consider our legal options.”

When pressed about potential litigation, Ms. Minteer said it was “definitely a possibility” but had to confer with her clients before any action could be taken.

Denise Spooner, who is affiliated with the group, noted that litigation could be a possible outcome “if the city says yes to Pomona and there are citizens who feel like we don’t have any other choice but to take some legal action against the city.”

Claremont Heritage Director David Shearer countered that it could be Pomona College that might file a lawsuit if the zone change and master plan aren’t passed, referencing a closed-session meeting of the city council on May 10 that involved “potential litigation” on an unnamed case.

“They would not reveal exactly what [the closed session meeting was] about, but we kind of assumed it was about Pomona threatening to sue the city if they don’t get the zone change they were entitled to,” Mr. Shearer said.

Mr. Shearer said that a city official alluded to the closed session in a conversation and implied that it related to Pomona College. Mr. Shearer would not name the official.

Pomona College Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Marylou Ferry strongly denied Mr. Shearer’s assertion.

“Right now we’re really focused on May 24,” she said.  “We’re headed in a positive direction.”

Resident Jacob Patterson noted that the college could seek a writ of mandamus, which is a directive from a court “ordering the government official to properly fulfill their official duties or correct an abuse of discretion,” according to the Legal Information Institute.

Claremont resident Ray Fowler, who is also a part of “Citizens to Save College Avenue,” has been a part of litigation against Pomona College expansion in the past. He was part of the group “Citizens Committee to Save Our Village,” which sued in 1992 to stop the college building Hahn Hall on the corner of Harvard Avenue and Sixth Street.

The lot where the hall was to be built was previously an open space—nicknamed “The Woods”—which was used for leisure activities and bird watching, according to court documents.

The suit was dismissed in 1995, and Hahn Hall was completed in 1997.

Mr. Fowler was unavailable for comment.

Ms. Minteer and Mr. Fowler have also sought to block other ordinances in Claremont, including loosening the city’s ban on drive-through establishments in 2010 and again in 2015 when the city relaxed its height-limit on business signs adjacent to the 10 freeway.

The public hearing could be the final step in the years-long process for Pomona College to get its master plan approved.

The proposed zone change at the center of the debate is for the parcel on which Renwick House sits; the city wants to change the zone to Institutional/Educational to make it in line with the 2006 general plan.

The area is currently zoned Medium-density Residential due to an oversight in the 2007 zoning cleanup, Director of Community Services Brian Desatnik said in a previous interview.

For over a year, city officials and citizens alike have expressed adamant opinions from both sides of the issue.

Detractors claim the museum would disrupt the historic and residential feel of the block and ruin the historical significance of Renwick, while supporters say the museum would be a boon to the city and the college alike, and serve as a “bridge between town and gown.”

Mr. Shearer cautioned that if the zone change and master plan were approved, Pomona College would be allowed to place any kind of building on the property.

“It will give Pomona carte blanche to basically do whatever they want,” Mr. Shearer warned.

Ms. Ferry refuted that claim, noting that the college would still have to go through the proper channels—including the architectural commission and the planning commission—if any other building were to be built.

When asked about an alternative plan, Mr. Shearer floated the idea of a museum straddling both sides of College Avenue, with part of the museum at the site of the cottages north of Renwick and another part at the existing Montgomery Art Center.

The council and the city planning commission have been split on the proposal. The planning commission gave a 4-3 negative recommendation on the zone change to the council, which then voted 3-2 on the change.

The zone change required a super majority to pass, at least five votes from the commission and four votes from the council.

After the council’s vote, a four-person committee of two councilmembers and two planning commissioners was convened for further discussion on the zone change. That meeting, which at times became contentious, ended without a recommendation to council.

Following the committee meeting, the council needs a simple 3-2 majority on May 24 to approve the zone change.

Ms. Ferry said the museum built at the site would be a great advantage to the city and the college.

“To have it in that location would be a benefit not just to us, but we hope to the community,” Ms. Ferry said.

Mr. Patterson noted it “feels weird” to have so much controversy surrounding a potential museum.

“This is not a condo. This is something everyone agrees would be pretty nice,” he said.

The city council meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. in the council chambers. A public comment period will be provided during the meeting.

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com