Controversies over the $660,000 in fees that nuns were charged to remove oaks from their property and a plan to expand neighborhood electric car lanes are emblematic of the philosophical differences separating candidates for Loomis Town Council.
Three candidates are vying for two seats in the Nov. 6 election, which comes amid the construction of huge retail developments and apartment complexes that are hemming in the picturesque town of horse ranches, fruit orchards and spacious homes.
For his part, incumbent Gary Liss is campaigning for re-election on a platform of sustainability, with ideas for encouraging moderate growth, preserving Loomis' rural feel, promoting green business opportunities, and protecting the area's environment.
David Wheeler, the town's fire chief, is concerned that Liss and his supporters will turn Loomis into a haven for tree-loving golf-cart drivers who have no regard for private property rights. He claims Liss has wasted city funds on too many surveys and lawsuits.
Meanwhile, Rhonda Nelthorpe Morillas, running for her sixth term on the council, is unhappy with what she describes as the panel's anti-business and over-the-top environmental stances.
Liss, elected in 2008, said his environmentally friendly concepts could preserve Loomis' homey atmosphere and help rescue it from the recent economic downturn.
"The new 'green economy' will help us turn the corner after the recession," Liss said. "The town has an environmental reputation because of our slow-growth attitude. It's a hallmark of our town, and allowed us to retain our small-town, rural lifestyle, instead of going hog wild with development."
He spearheaded a new city recycling program that he claims saves residents 40 percent off their garbage bills, and encouraged businesses in the city to take advantage of federal grants to install energy-saving equipment, including solar panels.
Wheeler said he felt compelled to make his first run for public office because of an "extreme environmentalism" taking root in Loomis.
"I'm focusing my efforts against Gary Liss," Wheeler said. "He has a number of pet projects, and he's using city funds for these. He's so focused on zero-waste and ecology, he can't think of anything else. We're a conservative town, and he's too liberal."
Loomis is about to slip into the shadow of two shopping centers slated for construction just over the city line in Rocklin at Interstate 80 and Sierra College Boulevard. While Wheeler recognizes the shopping centers will put pressure on small businesses in Loomis, he's hopping mad that the council spent $250,000 in recent years to fight a losing battle against the developments.
"The current City Council is lawsuit-happy," Wheeler said. "Over the last four years, they spent $250,000 trying to block the building of these shopping centers. You can't control what your neighbor does, and they spent valuable resources to do nothing."
Wheeler also is upset that the city has already spent $14,000 in legal fees to stop the construction of a 150-unit apartment complex near Loomis in Penryn.
Liss countered that the lawsuits, approved unanimously by the council, netted $1.2 million to mitigate traffic from nearby development, money that eventually would have come from the pockets of Loomis residents.
Morillas said she wants to revisit the city's tree ordinance, which charges fees when private property owners want to remove certain trees. The funds go to replacing the trees elsewhere in the city.
One case fueling the debate over the tree ordinance is a proposed nunnery on 40 acres of grass and oak woodland at the southwest corner of Rocklin and Barton roads. The Dominican Sisters of Mary want to build a priory for 80 nuns, and the order was charged $660,000 for removing oaks on the property.
"No group of oak trees is worth more than $600,000," Morillas said. "It's not right. It's an exorbitant fee.
"There are three people on the council now who support the tree ordinance, and I hope to overturn it if we get a change on the council."
Liss said he wasn't on the council when it adopted the tree ordinance.
He is, however, a supporter of the Heritage Park nature reserve at Loomis Pond, another point of contention among candidates.
The Town Council voted to convert an 11-acre patch of land previously zoned for 29 affordable housing units to a nature education preserve and "tree mitigation bank," so that when trees are cut down elsewhere in the city, trees could be planted at the reserve to mitigate for the loss.
Liss said the property owners couldn't build the housing because it didn't "pencil out" financially, and the property was foreclosed on.
The city bought the property and has a "really exciting chance to preserve it for future generations," Liss said.
Wheeler called both the city's tree ordinance and the proposed tree reserve "ridiculous," saying the park would require trails that would go through private property.
"The ordinance basically extorts money out of people who need to remove trees," he said. "And now they want to plant a tree park?
"This is not a park where people can go and enjoy themselves, but a park for trees."
Liss wants to explore the establishment of lanes for Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, or NEVs, battery-charged carts with speeds typically topping out at 30 mph and zero tailpipe emissions. He said the NEVs are part of the city's adopted bikeway plan.
Wheeler called the $30,000 cost to do a feasibility study on NEV lanes "a total waste of money for golf carts."
Morillas also criticized the study. "I don't think any of the citizens of Loomis want that," she said. "We're using reserves that have been built up."