Frequently Asked Questions
Following are answers to questions we have received during our public outreach to date, along with responses to statements made by those who oppose our need to sell and develop our property. We welcome additional questions, so please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scroll through the FAQ or use the links below to go directly to the questions that interest you.
- What are you planning to do and why?
- Do you have a plan that shows how the property will be developed?
- How does this plan address the City’s requirements to provide more housing units?
- What happens if the City does not meet its housing requirements?
- Will COVID-19 effect your timeline?
Responses to Recent Social Media Posts
- Response to allegation that we “destroyed the topsoil” on the 20-acre site”
- Response to comments like “Will Carter Ave. become a highway?”
- Did Preserve Sierra Madre offer to purchase the site?
- What assurances did the Memorandum of Understanding provide to the public?
- Will your plan be like One Carter?
- How will the plan provide for Sierra Madre’s infrastructure and City services?
- What about new water demand created by these homes?
- How long will construction take, how much construction traffic will there be, and how will construction impacts be minimized?
Residential Neighborhood Plans
- How will the design of the neighborhood protect neighbors?
- What kind of homes are planned?
- Will the new neighborhood be gated?
- What do you mean by “respecting the look and feel of Sierra Madre?”
- Once you have sold the land, can you still have a say in how it’s developed?
- Will there be any public oversight of the design of the homes?
- Are there other options besides homes?
- Have you selected a homebuilder?
- How much traffic will the project generate?
- Will Carter Ave. be used as a project entry?
- Where will Good Friday traffic park?
Parks, Wildlife and Nature
- When will we see plans for the proposed new public park on the site?
- Will the City pay for park construction and maintenance?
- What can be done to protect wildlife the new homes will displace?
- What will happen to the trees on the site?
- How much would it take to purchase the entire 20-acre site and set it aside as a park?
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What are you planning to do, and why?
Mater Dolorosa is owned by the Passionists of Holy Cross Province, which purchased the 88-acre site in 1924. We have been holding religious retreats here since 1926 and intend to keep doing so for many decades to come, just as we will continue to provide a meeting location for various ecumenical groups and recovery programs. The southern part of our property has always been vacant and we refer to it as The Meadows.
Pre-1997, our property was zoned for Residential Single-Family use. In 1997 the City created Institutional zoning and portions of our property were rezoned from Residential to Institutional. In 2016 a General Plan Amendment was made and the City eliminated a prior code provision that would have allowed the “reuse of large institutional properties (identified as properties being over 20 acres in size) for low density residential use, subject to appropriate regulatory and zoning procedures.”
Since 2007, the Retreat Center’s Board of Directors has worked on evaluating the sale of this vacant property in order to raise funds for the Province, in a manner that won’t impact our retreats. For five years through 2012, the Board worked with the Province in Chicago to evaluate a number of different options, including reaching out to “Angel Donors” to see if any were interested in purchasing The Meadows for conservation purposes. The Board was not successful in raising money from either individuals or Foundations for the purpose of purchasing The Meadows.
Sample Institutional Use: Residential Care
The site is currently zoned “Institutional,” and we continue to evaluate proposals for various institutional uses in case it becomes necessary to pursue this option in order to meet our Province’s financial needs. However, because the institutional proposals we have received appear likely to have a greater negative impact on the serenity we seek for retreatants who visit the site and on our immediate neighbors, we have decided to pursue a single family home residential development at this time.
The need for funds at the Province level has increased over these past many years. Funds are needed to support our ministries across America and internationally in places such as Haiti, and care for our priests and brothers, who now have a median age of 72.
When the City implemented the water moratorium a few years ago, it put our plans on hold for potential residential development. During the period the water moratorium was in place, the Board continued to evaluate various Institutional uses that would be permitted on the property.
Sample Institutional Use: School
We also had extensive talks with the City Manager about the City purchasing The Meadows while the water moratorium was in place. These talks led to the mutual conclusion that a City purchase was not a viable alternative.
When the water moratorium was lifted, and considering all of the alternatives we have evaluated over the past 13 years, we have once again reached a conclusion that a neighborhood of new homes was the alternative that would have the least impact on our neighbors, while meeting the Province’s needs and protecting the retreat experience.
On April 28, 2020, the City Council approved a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Province that establishes how our plan will be processed. Details on the MOU are provided below, in the Assurances section of the FAQ.
In addition to the requirements of the MOU, we have committed to:
- Blend with the existing neighborhoods near the property
- Seek to reflect the village character of Sierra Madre
- Incorporate energy-saving and water-saving design into the plan and homes
- Respect nature
- Meet our commitments to our neighbors, and
- Protect the character and ongoing mission of the Retreat Center.
Do you have a site plan that shows how the property will be developed?
A very preliminary site plan, shown on the below, was included in the MOU. This is simply a conceptual sketch that shows where homes, streets and open space will be. It will be refined as the homebuilder we contract with receives additional comments and ideas from the City, Sierra Madre residents and ourselves.
How does this plan address the City’s requirements to provide more housing units?
According to City staff, the City is in compliance with all applicable state laws regarding housing. The City has a Housing Element in its General Plan and is preparing to address what will be required of it under the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) now being prepared by the Southern California Association of Governments. While building permits would be issued for new homes if a proposal for homes on the Mater Dolorosa property is approved and moves forward, for information on how these permits would address RHNA requirements, you should contact the City.
What Happens if the City does not meet its housing requirements?
For specific questions regarding housing requirements, please contact the City of Sierra Madre directly.
Will COVID-19 affect your timeline?
We eagerly seek the community’s input and will do our part to ensure that all who wish to be heard will be heard. The most important elements of the public review process will be after the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is completed. Only then will everyone be able to evaluate what the project’s potential impacts are, and what has been proposed to reduce or eliminate those impacts. According to the City’s current schedule, the draft EIR will not be circulated before October 2020, and public hearings won’t be held before March 2021, so COVID-19 should not affect this portion of our plan’s public review. For the earlier public workshops and meetings, we are confident the City will find a way to fully engage those who are interested in our project, as it did when our Memorandum of Understanding was being considered by the City Council.
RESPONSES TO RECENT SOCIAL MEDIA POSTS
Response to allegation that we “destroyed the topsoil on the site”
This is 100% false. The Retreat Center has always relied on Mother Nature to water the meadow, and even with this natural irrigation, every year plant growth covers the meadow. As part of the ongoing maintenance of our property, typically twice a year, the Retreat Center uses a flail mower to cut the heavier grass and scrub that grows in the meadow and elsewhere on our property. During the winter of 2018-2019, with all of the rain we enjoyed, we actually mowed the meadow six times! With the lack of rain so far during the 2019-2020 winter, we have not had to mow yet, but have been faced with a more serious problem.
Due to the previous drought, certain invasive weeds that could spread to neighboring properties, i.e., tumbleweeds, have invaded our meadow. In an effort to be the best neighbor possible, the Retreat Center hired the County of Los Angeles, Department of Agricultural Commissioner/Weights and Measures Department to handle tumbleweed abatement measures and treatments on our property. The process the County follows with its weed abatement program is environmentally friendly, but even so, the spraying kills all growth and the land becomes temporarily barren.
For more details on the County Tumbleweed Program, click here. For additional questions, please call the Weed Abatement Division of the County of Los Angeles Department of Agricultural at (626) 575-5484.
Response to comments like, “Carter Ave. will become a highway”
The Environmental Impact Report will provide direction regarding the designation of any additional access routes in addition to Sunnyside, and will estimate the amount of daily “trips” that will be added on each access route, and on other roadways in the surrounding area. To get an idea of the total traffic the proposed homes would probably generate, stand on Fairview Avenue between Sierra Keys Drive and Crestvale Drive and count the cars driving in and out of those two streets. There are 50 homes on Crestvale and Sierra keys, so our proposed 42 homes should generate about 15 percent less traffic.
Did Preserve Sierra Madre offer to purchase the site?
In a January 2014 meeting with Preserve Sierra Madre, we were presented with a proposal in which the site would be purchased for a suggested price of $10 million and preserved as open space. The proposal outlined numerous ways the funds could be raised, including an assessment on all properties in Sierra Madre and obtaining funding from organizations that purchase and preserve open space. Since funding had not yet been secured, this was a proposal, not an offer. We encouraged Preserve Sierra Madre to pursue the idea but said we would continue our planning for residential development in parallel to their efforts, in case they could not raise the funds. We have not heard further from Preserve Sierra Madre on their proposal.
Explain the approval process and the opportunities the public will have to be involved.
The process starts when the applicant files an application with the City describing the plan; this document will be available for review by the public, and we will share it. The City will then select an environmental consultant who will hold a public meeting so all interested parties can suggest what the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) should study, then draft the EIR, based on technical studies of all required topics, like traffic, biological resources and City infrastructure. The draft EIR will be circulated for review by the public and other interested parties, and all comments received must be addressed in the draft final EIR. The draft final EIR will detail all the environmental impacts deemed significant and recommend mitigations (corrections) designed to reduce or eliminate those impacts. The City Planning Commission and City Council will hold public hearings on the project before voting on whether to certify the EIR and approve the proposed project.
What assurances does the Memorandum of Understanding provide to the public?
The Memorandum of Understand (MOU) between the City and Mater Dolorosa requires both parties to comply fully with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The developer is required to pay all the City’s costs for processing the plan, to dedicate the hillside acres above the Retreat Center to the City as open space, to build a public park of between 3.0 and 3.5 acres and dedicate it to the City and to have a net zero water impact. The City is required to hold two public workshops on the plan in addition to the public meetings and public hearings required by CEQA.
What assurance is there that the developer will build the project as it was proposed?
The Development Agreement, basically a contract between the City and the applicant, includes requirements the applicant will be obligated to meet. In addition, the City will require many conditions of approval and mitigation measures. Typically, these provisions are tied to the phases of development, so some must be completed before the city will allow the site to be graded, others before building permits will be issued, and others before occupancy permits will be issued. This results in many opportunities to check the project for consistency with the city’s rules.
How will your plan be different from One Carter?
Our property is unlike the One Carter property in that it is relatively flat so the neighborhood can be designed to be more compatible with the homes near us, and will be less visible from elsewhere in the City. Also, whereas One Carter was a one-time project in Sierra Madre for its developer, Mater Dolorosa intends to be here for decades to come and will be the closest neighbor to what’s built on our property. We are going to select a homebuilder who is sensitive to the unique character of Sierra Madre and our needs, as operators of a Retreat Center that promises peace and tranquility.
How can we be assured that the Retreat Center or the hillside parcel won’t be developed?
The Memorandum of Understanding, which is contractual in nature, stipulates that we will dedicate the hillside parcel to the City upon approval of our plans for the residential parcel. As for the rest of the site, the Passionists are committed to holding religious retreats because it is our core mission. Retreats have been held here for more than 94 years, and we look forward to holding them here for decades more. We continue to make investments in the Retreat Center’s facilities, and the Board of Directors will soon begin work on updating its Master Plan, which will provide a framework for the Retreat Center’s continuing ability to meet the needs of those we serve. Our efforts are focused on a positive residential plan for our vacant southern acreage.
How will the plan provide for Sierra Madre’s infrastructure and City services?
Because the new homes would represent just one percent of the current number of homes in Sierra Madre, the new neighborhood will have little discernable impact on infrastructure or services. The Environmental Impact Report will describe the scope of any such impacts and require mitigations if they are found to be significant.
What fiscal benefits will the project bring and how did you compute them?
The project will result in one-time development fees, new property tax, utility tax revenues, and new sales for City businesses, which can be estimated as follows:
- Development Fees: Once an application is filed and the specifics of the proposed development are known, we will be able to compute the development fees the City will charge. Preliminary rough calculations show the fees could total between $2 million and $2.5 million.
- Property Tax: The City will receive approximately $125,000 to $210,000 in new property tax revenues annually. This is estimated by assuming a low of 40 homes valued at $1.5 million and a high of 50 homes valued at $2 million, a property tax rate of 1% of assessed value, of which the city receives 21 cents on the dollar. Because the Passionists are non-profit, the sale of the land will create a new source of tax revenue for the City. These new property tax revenues will increase over time as homes re-sell and re-appraise.
- Other Taxes and Fees: The new homes would also generate utility user tax, sales tax, vehicle in-lieu fees and other revenues to the City. Since the new homes would represent an increase of about one percent in the number of homes in Sierra Madre, it’s likely that revenue from all these sources also would increase by about one percent.
What about the new water demand created by the new homes?
We have committed to the City that the homebuilder will create a fund to pay for water efficiency improvements elsewhere in the City that will result in the proposed homes being a “net zero water” new community. In addition, new homes will be required to comply with statewide water efficiency rules and therefore will use about half the water homes built before 1990 use, through requirements for water-efficient fixtures and drought-tolerant landscaping. Runoff and stormwater will be captured on-site and can replenish the aquifer, rather than being channeled to storm trains, as occurs in older neighborhoods. Still, it’s true that new homes create new demand. We are committed to working with the City to maximize water efficiency throughout the development to protect Sierra Madre’s water supply reliability, and recognize that the City could use our development impact fees to fund water conservation and/or water supply efforts elsewhere in the city that could offset new demand.
Here are some things to expect in new homes based on building codes, drought and environmental regulations and efforts by homebuilders to meet consumer demand for greater water efficiency:
- Water-conserving fixtures that function as well as older fixtures but use as little as 75 percent of the water used by older fixtures.
- Drought-tolerant landscaping, strict limits on the use of turf and the use of drip and micro-spray irrigation instead of sprinklers, all of which dramatically cut outdoor water use.
- Natural open space areas that capture storm water and runoff and allow it to seep into the ground so it recharges our aquifer.
- Super-efficient appliances like dishwashers that hold the water from the final rinse cycle and use it for the next load’s first wash cycle.
How long will construction take, how much construction traffic will there be, and how will construction impacts be minimized?
Answers to these questions must await a specific project application and EIR. Construction impacts are required to be considered in EIRs, and a number of mitigations are typically required to reduce impacts. These could include restrictions on the hours of operation, defined routes for construction traffic, prohibitions on off-site parking of construction vehicles, limitations on truck idling, and dust control measures. We have been told by developers that the relatively flat nature of the site makes it possible to grade the site without having to import or export soil, so it appears that dirt-hauling trucks may not be needed.
RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBORHOOD PLANS
How will the design of the neighborhood protect neighbors?
We will work with the selected homebuilder to see that lots will be similarly sized to those adjacent to our property, and will be consistent with the City’s low-density zoning rules. New homes abutting existing homes along the southern and western edge of the site will very likely be single-story to be sensitive to our immediate neighbors. Storm water regulations require that runoff be captured and held so it can seep into the ground. This is normally done in natural open space buffers that we believe could also serve to separate the new homes from neighboring homes.
What kind of homes are planned?
While it is far too early in the process to have even preliminary home designs, the homes’ design will be varied, with designs reflective of the designs of neighboring homes. Design standards and a design review process will be incorporated into the project’s approval in order to ensure this.
Will the new neighborhood be gated?
We have no plans to gate the neighborhood. Besides, our commitment to providing a public park in the neighborhood would make gating infeasible.
What do you mean by “respecting the village character and look and feel of Sierra Madre?”
More than 60 percent of Sierra Madre’s existing homes were built in the 1950s or earlier and are more than 60 years old. Homes built today cannot reasonably be expected to be exact reflections of homes of that era, but given Sierra Madre’s reputation as a wonderful place to live, our future homebuilder partner will be positively motivated to capture as much of the look and feel of Sierra Madre as reasonably possible. Because the Retreat Center will be the new development’s largest future neighbor, we will stay involved in this process, working with the homebuilder, the City and residents to find neighborhood and home designs that respect Sierra Madre’s historic development and architectural patterns.
Once you have sold the land, can you still have a say in how it’s developed?
When we were working on selling the parcel in 2013 through 2015, we had an agreement with the homebuilder that we would have input into the design aspects of the new neighborhood. We intend to have a similar arrangement now.
Will there be any public review of the homes’ design?
When the site plan and renderings of the proposed architecture for the homes are available, we intend to share them with the community in workshops, presentations, and/or this website. Typically, the Planning Commission and City Council will review these materials at public hearings, as well.
Are there other options besides homes?
Yes. The property’s Institutional zoning allows any number of uses that would be much more impactful on neighboring homes and would generate much more traffic. Options that could meet these criteria include:
- Sale of the property to an institutional user like a private school, an extended care/retirement facility, or an assisted living facility, i.e., a larger version of the Kensington property located across the street from City Hall. The site is currently zoned “Institutional,” and we continue to evaluate proposals for various institutional uses in case it becomes necessary to pursue this option in order to meet our Province’s financial needs. However, because the institutional proposals we have received appear likely to have a greater negative impact on the serenity we seek for retreatants who visit the site and on our immediate neighbors, we have decided to pursue a single family home residential development at this time.
Sample Institutional Uses: Residential care facility (left) and school (right)
- Sale of the property to the City for open space. The Province has previously engaged in significant dialogue about this option with the City Manager. The City had the property appraised and with various Housing Crisis Bills that became effective on January 1, 2020 in California, the City felt this was not a viable option.It is our understanding that State law prohibits cities from buying property for more than its appraised value, and an institutional or residential developer would likely be willing to pay more. Because we are selling the property to raise funds for our continuing mission work and to provide for the care of our senior brothers and priests, we would be obligated to accept such an offer.
- Sale of the property for residential use. We are currently pursuing this option because we feel a carefully managed residential plan is the best for meeting the needs of Holy Cross Province while minimizing potential negative impacts to our neighbors and retreatants. It will also generate the most benefits to the City, through development fees and ongoing property and utility tax revenues. Our proposal for 42 residential units is much lower than the number that could be built under the City’s zoning code. The City staff report presented at the March 10 and April 28, 2020 City Council meetings detailed these potential development scenarios we could have pursued:
- Under R-1 residential zoning, the zoning category we propose to rezone the land to, up to 116 units would be allowed
- With higher-density R-3 zoning, which is currently favored by the state, up to 260 units would be allowed
- With R-3H zoning, which takes advantage of allowed density bonuses under state law, up to 400 units could be built on the site, and
- Following the development standards used by the City in approving the Kensington Specific Plan, up to 820 units would be allowed under the property’s current institutional zoning.
Have you selected a homebuilder?
We have reentered negotiations with New Urban West, the homebuilder we were working with prior to the water moratorium. We selected New Urban West based on their reputation for working cooperatively with neighbors – which in this case will include the Retreat Center, as we will be one of the neighborhood’s long-term neighbors.
How much traffic will the project generate?
This question will be answered when a project is designed and a traffic study is completed as part of the Environmental Impact Report. To get an idea of the total traffic the proposed homes would probably generate, stand on Fairview Avenue between Sierra Keys Drive and Crestvale Drive and count the cars driving in and out of those two streets. There are 50 homes on Crestvale and Sierra keys, so our proposed 42 homes should generate about 15 percent less traffic.
Will Carter Avenue be used as a project entry?
The primary entry will be on Sunnyside Avenue, but the Environmental Impact Report will provide the information necessary to assess whether other possible additional entry points would help to reduce traffic impacts by spreading the car trips over other streets. The rough conceptual site plan included in the Memorandum of Understanding shows a connection to Carter Avenue, but pending further analysis, it is not yet certain that connection will be in the final plan, or whether it might be an emergency-only access point.
Where will Good Friday visitors park?
There still will be significant on-site parking, and we will work with local schools and churches to provide additional off-site parking and shuttles, as needed. We will work with our neighbors and the City to find ways to prevent parking on Sunnyside and other near-by streets during this popular event.
PARKS, WILDLIFE AND NATURE
When will we see the plans for the proposed new public park on the site?
In the Memorandum of Understanding, we have committed to providing a 3.0 to 3.5-acre public park, to be built by the homebuilder and dedicated to the City to address the lack of City parks on the west side of Sierra Madre. Specific plans for the park will be worked out by the City and the selected homebuilder and will be available for public review at that time.
Will the City pay for park construction and maintenance?
No. The park would be built to City specifications at the homebuilder’s expense, and funds for maintaining it would be paid to the City by the future homeowners in the new development through an assessment on their property taxes.
What will be done to protect wildlife the new homes will displace?
Even after development on the 20-acre Development Parcel, there will be a great deal of natural open space at Mater Dolorosa, including the large Hillside Parcel, the significant open space within the 23-acre Retreat Center Parcel, and open space within the new home community. More detailed biological study will accompany the Environmental Impact Report, and the biological mitigations incorporated into that study typically include requirements for protecting wildlife through the site’s design and through restrictions imposed during grading and construction.
Many have asked whether a wildlife corridor will be incorporated into the plan. A wildlife corridor will be considered in the Environmental Impact Report. Biologists will evaluate how wildlife currently use the land, and if their studies determine that a corridor is necessary, the EIR may require it.
What will happen to the trees on the site?
Whenever possible, mature trees will be saved, especially if they help to reduce visual impacts for neighbors or provide benefits to wildlife. Typically, the Environmental Impact Report includes a tree study, with botanists and arborists determining which trees, if any, have protected status, and what will be required of the homebuilder in terms of protection of existing trees and the planting of new trees.
How much would it take for the City to purchase the entire 20-acre site and set it aside as a park?
The City has determined this is not a viable option, especially in light of new legislation to address the housing crisis, and state litigation against cities the Attorney General considers to be too “anti-housing.” The Province did engage previously in significant dialogue about this option with the City Manager. The City had the property appraised prior to determining that this was not a viable option.
Should you need further information associated with our development project, please call or email our spokesperson, Cameron Thornton, at (818) 281-2360 or by email at email@example.com