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Camille Lozano

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A transient suspected of lighting three fires in San Marino this month, and several others in Pasadena, Arcadia and Monrovia over the past two months, has been arrested and charged with six counts of arson.

The suspect, identified as 44-year-old Nigel Letren, was arrested by San Marino Police officers on Saturday during the early morning hours following a brush fire that broke out just after 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 19. That fire was preceded by another small brush fire in San Marino reported the day before.

According to a press notification from the SMPD on Jan. 19, the Thursday, Jan. 18 brush fire broke out at about 7:30 p.m. on the north side of Huntington Drive just east of Kensington Road. San Marino police and fire responders arrived at the scene within minutes and firefighters extinguished the fire. The response shut down westbound lanes on Huntington at Wembley Road for a short time, and police urged San Marino residents to avoid the area. There were no structures damaged in the Thursday evening blaze, and the exact cause is under investigation.

On Jan. 3, a similar fire was reported on the west side of San Gabriel Boulevard, just north of Gainsborough Drive. Police Sgt. Tim Tebbetts said the cause of that fire appeared to be an unknown substance, and said earlier reports from “an unknown witness” who described seeing “burning coals being thrown from an unknown vehicle” may have been hearsay—those details were not included in notations on the case or in email conversations between SMPD investigators. No structures or people were affected by this fire, either.

All three fires are believed to be linked to Letren who is also suspected of “a spree” of fires in Pasadena and Arcadia on Jan. 13. According to a press release issued late Wednesday evening by the Pasadena Fire Department, “an ongoing investigation by members of the Verdugo Fire Investigation Task Force yielded a suspect and description and a ‘want flyer’ was disseminated to local law enforcement entities.”

The Verdugo Fire Investigation Task Force is a regional group of investigators from the cities of San Marino, Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, South Pasadena, Sierra Madre, Arcadia, Monrovia, San Gabriel, Alhambra, Monterey Park, and Montebello.

“This arrest is a great example of exceptional cooperation between multiple agencies and proven results from our regional Verdugo Fire Investigations Task Force,” Pasadena Fire Chief Bertral Washington said in a statement. “The Regional Fire Chiefs and I are thankful for their relentless work on behalf of the communities we serve.”

Letren was arraigned at Pasadena Superior Court on Wednesday, Jan. 24 and was charged with five counts of arson related to the fires on Jan. 13, and one count of arson related to a Dec. 9 brush fire in Monrovia. Letren is currently being held on $425,000 bail and is scheduled to appear back in court on Feb. 15.

The San Marino City Council’s initial meeting of 2018 reflected a move toward greater accountability and progress, with city staff providing information regarding the city’s financial state and a recommendation to reform a current advisory body into a Public Safety Commission.

Citizens attending the meeting entered through the doors of City Hall last Wednesday to see dozens of printouts, including copies of the city’s audited financial statements spanning three fiscal years.

The city was presented with items from City Manager Marcella Marlowe first, followed by a report from City Treasurer Annie Han, and the financial report for the month of November compiled by Interim Administrative Services Director Josh Betta.

The financial report attached within the public meeting agenda provided a wealth of information on the city’s financial stature, including that the city has maintained 106% in expenditure reserves as of June 30, 2017, or 86% using the Revenue Reserve ratio. The amount is expected to change with the fluctuation of revenue and expenditures, but the percentage represents the city’s ability to cover all expenditures completely within the fiscal year in a hypothetical emergency situation.

Please see this week’s Tribune for the full story, including takeaways on city’s financial situation with regard to “Implications for Ad Hoc Committee’s Recommendations,” “Unfurling the Unfunded Pension Liability,” and “Running Government Like a Business.”

The San Marino Fire Department will be rolling out “Operation Fire Safe,” a home safety inspection service and checklist tool for local residents, in 2018.

The objective of the service is to prevent accidental fires, improve life conditions, help occupants understand and improve existing conditions, as well as to provide firefighters with an awareness of the occupancies in their jurisdiction, according to the SMFD.

Information on “Operation Fire Safe” will be available on the City of San Marino’s website on the SMFD page, including a description of the service and the checklist, included here, of safety items and precautions to keep your home fire safe.

Kitchen:

  • Cooking is never left unattended
  • Unplug any unused appliances
  • In an event of a grease fire, put a lid on it

Heating

  • Do not cover baseboard heaters with furniture, curtains, or any other equipment
  • Keep portable heaters at least 3 feet away from beds, furniture, and other equipment
  • Never leave portable heaters unattended
  • Turn off portable heaters before sleeping

Electrical

  • Do not leave extension cords under rugs, doors, or tacked to walls.
  • Use as few extension cords as possible.

Housekeeping

  • Keep lighters and matches out of reach from children in a secure place.
  • Light candles only in sturdy holders and never leave unattended.

Smoke Alarm: Did you know that working smoke alarms can increase your chance of survival by 50%?

Install:

  • Install smoke detectors according to the manufacturer’s guidelines on every floor and in every sleeping area as well as the hallways leading to them.

Inspect:

  • Regularly test and vacuum the alarms.
  • Replace alarm battery every year or once the alarm starts “chirping.”

Protect:

  • Develop a Home Escape Plan to follow in an event of a fire.
  • During a fire, crawl low and evacuate. Once out, call 911.

This, as well as additional information, will also be available in Mandarin on the Fire Department’s webpage.

Any resident who has questions about the service or safety checklist is encouraged to call the SMFD’s non-emergency line at (626) 300-0735 and ask to speak with the shift supervisor, Firefighter/Paramedic Dwayne Carlton stated.

“If after you’ve reviewed the checklist and you have additional concerns, we will be happy to come out to your home and walk through the checklist with you, or inspect an item of concern,” Carlton said.

Printed copies of the safety checklist will also be available at the San Marino Fire Department, City Hall, and will be passed out at future community meetings.

“This is an additional way for the Fire Department to continue to improve services in the community,” SMFD Chief Mario Rueda said. “We never know when some action on our part could help prevent an accident, so why wait?”

See this week’s Tribune for a detailed breakdown of this year’s “Top 17 of ’17” news, community and sports coverage in our annual year-end issue. Happy New Year!

San Marino’s newly appointed Mayor Steve Talt, began his tenure last Wednesday evening with an address to council members and meeting attendees, outlining his intention to “create an atmosphere that fulfills the reason we decided to live or work in San Marino: safety, municipal financial security, great schools, and wonderful neighborhoods.”

Talt identified issues such as safety, historic preservation, community involvement, solidifying the relationship between school district city and giving ordinances a hard look while reviewing fulfillment of the city’s general plan.

The mayor said the city will begin creating a permanent public safety commission at the council’s next meeting.

“We need to provide actionable guidance on continuing to secure our city,” Talt said. “We have a police force and a fire agency that works 24/7, 365 [days a year]—they never close. We have to make certain that they have the tools necessary to do their job, we have to continue to educate the public about securing their own properties, and we have to partner with all appropriate community groups to protect our residents and our property.”

Talt also put emphasis on infrastructure through the enforcement and review of existing building ordinances, and explained that the planning and building department will be instructed to put together a list of specified ordinances.

“Too many projects are taking too long [to be built], for too little reason…and that negatively impacts our neighborhoods,” he said. “We need to review these ordinances, such as the basement ordinance, to make sure they are having their desired effect…are they being enforced or ignored, whether they are appropriate.”

He also stated the need for guidance on general policies, by better defining items such as what to do with the recreation department and utilizing strategic planning to make sure goals of the general plan are fulfilled.

“We have to create a guideline to make sure we get there as soon as humanly possible,” he said.

The city’s strategic financial planning committee met for the first time on Wednesday of this week to begin setting the framework for the new city council to make decisions on investment policy, pensions, infrastructure and the city’s reserve fund, according to City Manager Dr. Marcella Marlowe.

“We need strategic planning concerning the long-term finances of the city,” Talt told attendees at last Wednesday’s council meeting. “I believe this council is well equipped to handle this, and under the direction of our Vice Mayor and Councilman Ude, I feel confident that we can come up with a viable plan to secure the future of San Marino, to take care of our infrastructure and do the best we can to curtail the pension burden that this city as well as others suffer.”

The mayor concluded with a pledge that the city will stop kicking ongoing issues down the road, such as plans for Stoneman Elementary School, the Lacy Park Rose Arbor and restrooms and the cell towers, and will solve them this year.

Councilmembers Susan Jakubowski and Gretchen Shepherd Romey recused themselves at the city’s Dec. 13 city council meeting as the council moved to hear an appeal to move a two-story, six-bedroom project forward.

The 1400 Circle Drive project had been through several hearings and the applicant and his lawyer were in attendance at the meeting, hoping to get the go-ahead on the residence.

Planning and Building Director Aldo Cervantes explained that while the applicant had submitted a timely appeal, the plans submitted with the appeal were identical to the ones denied by the Design Review Committee. The applicant then submitted revised plans that did away with the need of a Conditional Use Permit, given that the plans dropped the seventh bedroom.

The issue, Cervantes said, was that the revised plans along with a historical assessment of the home, property and architect were submitted on Dec. 5, six business days before the hearing, without adequate time for Cervantes and assistant planners to review.

The planning and building director also noted that the posterboard in front of the home was not updated with the accurate date of the hearing. In the city’s code, the appeals provision provided unclear “may” verbiage, Cervantes said could have been the issue for the applicant’s noncompliance.

The full provision states: “Failure to post the sign, to include the required information, or to comply with applicable placement or graphic standards or requirements may result in the delay of the required public hearing.”

The council, after hearing from the applicant’s lawyer Richard McDonald, eventually decided to send the project back to the planning commission.

The “appeal of commission decisions” process includes four methods the city council can take: to accept the prior decision of the commission, to require a summary of the evidence through which the commission made its decision, to refer the matter back to the commission, or to set the matter for a hearing within forty days to decide the case de novo, hearing the case as if it was an entirely new project.

In a phone conversation Wednesday evening, McDonald said they were told that the Wednesday evening hearing would be a de novo hearing, and said the materials had been submitted as early as September as well as that the planning department was aware of the historical analysis.

“We were not told they would be thinking of sending it back to the planning commission,” McDonald said. “Telling us one thing and then doing something different isn’t good.”

He explained that with regard to the four options in the code, they were under the impression that the de novo option had already been selected, and that they believed it would take place at the Dec. 13 meeting.

McDonald said the tenant is prepared to testify at the Planning Commission meeting as to the bad condition of the home, including sloping floors, and portions of the home that need to be brought up to code.

“It’s time for a new house consistent with the standards of San Marino,” McDonald said. “It’s a really good project.”

The San Marino Fire Department and a San Marino Police Department cadet and enlisted California National Guard Airman are at the scene of the Thomas Fire in Ventura County right now maintaining “law and order” and keeping homes safe as the inferno continues to threaten homes and livelihoods. The Thomas Fire had burned 237,500 acres with only 25 percent containment at the time The Tribune went to press Wednesday evening.

SMFD Chief Mario Rueda said Engine 91, manned by Captain Nick Maza, Fire Engineer Mike White, Firefighter/Paramedic Richard Fixsen and Firefighter/Paramedic Dave Tannehill, was sent to Santa Clarita to help with the wildfires last Thursday night before being redeployed to Ventura County. Engine 91 joined crews from Burbank, Pasadena and Vernon to form Strike Team 1207A, one of three Strike Teams from the San Gabriel Valley.

An SMFD firefighter surveys the devastation caused by the Thomas Fire with a resident. Photo courtesy the SMFD

Engine 91 is working to protect houses in the Carpinteria area, according to Rueda, and in an email, Captain Maza shared a look into their efforts to quell the devastation with The Tribune: “While [Strike Team] 1207A has not danced with the devil, we have been engaged and eager to assist in any way we can. So far we have been tasked with mop up and tactical patrol in an area that was devastated and is now being repopulated.”

“Our engine and uniform may say ‘San Marino,’ but we know we are here to represent the Thomas Incident, bringing our professionalism and kindness to the people of Ventura. As you can see we have taken each assignment seriously and feel fortunate to have opportunities like these to help others. After all, that’s why we all became firefighters.”

The SMFD crew is working 24 hours at a time doing structure defense, Rueda said.

“They’re clearing things away from the home and staying with the homes to ensure they don’t burn down,” he said. “Then after 24 hours, normal protocol is that they’ll come off the line to eat and sleep.”

Rueda said the Ventura County Fairgrounds is being used as a basecamp for the firefighters.

The SMFD must stay up to 14 days at the Thomas Incident as part of their county aid commitment. In the meantime, the department’s reserve engine is performing normal duties here in San Marino.

San Marino Police Department cadet Kyle Kitagawa, who’s been with the department for about 3 years, is also serving in Ventura County. Kitagawa is an enlisted airman with the California Air National Guard, who’s unit was activated for duty last Wednesday night.

SMPD cadet Kyle Kitagawa was activated for duty as part of the California National Air Guard. Photo Courtesy the SMPD

Kitagawa spoke with The Tribune over the phone Tuesday from the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station.

“I got home from work [last] Wednesday night and I got a phone call saying we had to go to the March Air Reserve Base,” he said. “Within 12 hours, I’d packed up all my equipment and showed up at base, where the unit came together. Then we traveled to the Channel Islands base. From here we were assigned to Ventura.”

Kitagawa said the group was tasked with keeping out looters, and keeping residents out of harm’s way until it was safe to come back into their neighborhoods.

“We are there to make sure these people aren’t forgotten, and to make sure law and order is maintained,” he said. “As long as the state needs us, we will be here.”

Kitagawa said a couple of the men serving alongside him lost homes to the fires, but they’re there to prevent the same thing from happening to others.

“I got to see some of the devastation firsthand,” he said. “There’s people who are coming up to our checkpoint, knowing they can’t go past us, they can’t go any further, but they’re just trying to see what’s going on…if they’re home can be saved or what happened to it.”

Kitagawa said it was heartening to see the SMFD up there with him, working together to support the community in this trying time.

“Even though I’m up here, we’re still working together,” he said. “Whenever we’re needed, we’ll drop everything and go.”

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With California set to become the nation’s largest cannabis economy with its decision to unite the medical cannabis industry and an increasing demand for recreational, or “adult-use” sale, San Marino Police Chief John Incontro told The Tribune some of the biggest issues come January 1 will be edible consumption and lack of regulation.

Since Governor Jerry Brown’s signage in July of Senate Bill 94, known as the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act, or MAUCRSA, local jurisdictions have been scrambling to adopt ordinances specific to commercial cannabis activity.

San Marino’s ordinance recently adopted in early November includes specifications to allow up to six plants to be grown in a secure fully enclosed structure, whether it be the indoors of a private residence or in an accessory dwelling structure on the grounds of the residence. The ordinance includes setback and fencing requirements, not applied to cultivation occurring in garages. It also must not be accessible to those under 21 years of age, and “cultivation areas shall be secured by lock and key or other security device which prevents unauthorized entry.”

City residents planning to prepare their homes for the cultivation of cannabis, including modifications, rewiring and repairs will also need to get an applicable building, mechanical or electrical permit from the City of San Marino’s building division, according to the adopted ordinance.

The ordinance will begin taking effect Dec. 8, thirty days from the final passage last month.

“Here in San Marino, residents will be allowed to grow up to six plants in a home, no matter if it’s a [home with multiple people over the age of 21],” he said. “There won’t be any sales or distribution allowed, and the plants will need to be in a protected area, and out of view.”

Incontro said his concerns lie with the increasing popularity of “edibles”—ingestible products that contain THC, the compound in cannabis that produces a “high” in the user—there will be increased risk for children and others unknowingly consuming cannabis.

“Say someone puts a marijuana cookie in a plastic bag, there’s no markings or distinguishing factors that let someone know it contains cannabis,” he said. “It could be brought to school and it also relates to the problem of driving under the influence. There’s no way to know how much THC is in there.”

Another challenge is that law enforcement agencies don’t yet have a standardized test for detecting THC levels, and currently can only detect if someone has taken the drug within a period of up to 30 days. It presents a challenge of determining if someone is high at the moment they come into contact with law enforcement, or if they’d taken the drug hours, days or weeks earlier.

Incontro cited recent reports from the states of Colorado and Washington that examined an increase in traffic accidents and deaths involving drivers who had detectable levels of THC in their system. The Denver Post’s Aug. 25 story stated the uptick “coincide[d] with the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado that began with adult use in late 2012, followed by sales in 2014.”

The report emphasized that authorities say the incidents can’t “definitively be linked to legalized pot.”

The SMPD Chief said another issue is lack of regulation and consistency of potency among shops that will carry cannabis—though Incontro pointed out there are no smoke shops or liquor stores in San Marino, and the product will not be sold or distributed in the city.

“There’s no regulation between shops in terms of how potent the cannabis can be, someone can eat a brownie from one shop and someone else can eat one from another shop and one person be below the legal limit and the other be way over,” he said. “Every person has a different tolerance too.”

The chief’s concerns echo that of Dr. Cyrus Rangan, the director of the Bureau of Toxicology and Environmental Assessment at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Rangan who also serves as the assistant medical director of the California Poison Control System and as a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles spoke to parents last Friday during a Partnership for Awareness event at Huntington Middle School discussing drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

Rangan also identified edibles and the lack of set regulations and scientific testing done on the substance as concerning.

The San Marino Police Department released a “California Safety Fire Alert” to residents subscribed to its CLEAR program today, stating the SMPD and the San Marino Fire Department are on “alert and increased patrol due to high winds and multiple fires in our region.”

The departments are advising residents not to use any open flames or anything that could produce sparks during these dangerous conditions.

The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning through 8 p.m. Sunday for the Los Angeles County and Ventura Mountains. According to the service, humidity is at a daily minimum of 5 to 12 percent, “with very poor overnight recovery.”

Low humidity coupled with extremely strong winds can contribute to extreme fire behavior, and has caused the rapid spread of the Creek Fire off of Kagel Canyon Rd., which has burned 12,605 acres and is 10 percent contained, the Skirball Fire, which has burned 475 acres with 20 percent containment and the Rye Fire which has destroyed 7,000 acres and is  15 percent contained. The Thomas Fire burning in nearby Ventura county is the currently the largest of the fires, burning 96,000 acres and is only five percent contained.

A personal care and beauty salon hoping to move into an available retail space in the 2500 block of Mission Street may have to look elsewhere. The San Marino Planning Commission denied a variance for the La Amour Nail business at its Nov. 21 meeting. The business would have required 11 more parking spaces than the three that the previous retail business needed.

According to the Planning Commission’s assessment in its staff report following the meeting:  “with four businesses sharing the total existing sixteen parking spaces in the rear parking lot, staff finds that there would be a significant impact to traffic and circulation at this location and a staggering deficiency in parking spaces.”

The available space is located between the San Marino Café and Marketplace, and Elements, is on the same block as Sontre Nails and Mark Taylor salon, and within walking distance of Starr House: The Salon as well as the San Marino Barber Shop.

The City’s Municipal Code requires that one space be provided for every 75 feet of floor area for personal care and beauty salon services. With a square footage of 1,040, the salon would have required 14 total spaces, out of the total existing parking spaces in the rear parking lot shared among the four businesses directly next to the proposed salon, according to the staff report. Further, with Mission Street being the only other “commercial corridor” besides Huntington Drive, the street is often impacted with visitors coming to the businesses, offices and restaurants.

La Amour Nails would have operated as an “appointments only” salon, with three employees providing a “variety of nail and facial treatments such as manicures, pedicures, eyelash extensions, hair removal and permanent makeup services.

The applicants will still have an opportunity to challenge the planning commission’s decision if they intend to formally appeal the decision to the city council.

The Tuesday evening meeting also included a recommendation to deny a conditional use permit for a modern/contemporary style 2-story home in the 2400 block of S. Oak Knoll Ave. The plans included a new residence with a detached two-car garage and street-facing fence, a gate and pilasters. Staff found issue with the style of the home in comparison to the neighborhood, as well as the size of the home proposed as 3,549 square feet—exceeding the maximum allowance by more than 300 square feet.

“Only four out of the 28 properties within a 300-foot radius exceed the maximum allowances,” the staff report read. “Allowing a trend that allows homes to exceed their maximum allowances would set a dangerous precedent that becomes detrimental to property in the neighborhood. It would also allow future implements to request similar entitlements. Most importantly, as new construction, there is no justification to request an entitlement to exceed the maximum allowance.”

The applicant requested a continuance two days before the meeting,  after reviewing recommendations made by the city’s Planning Department. The recommendation was made to deny the permit and continue action to Jan. 24, 2018.

Many San Marino citizens who turned out for the third discussion on plans for the Lacy Park Rose Arbor were able to agree on one idea overall: they liked the design of the original arbor.

Parks and Public Works Director and City Engineer Michael Throne, who organized the Wednesday morning and evening meetings on Nov. 15, said attendees were “pretty consistent in thought and notions, and were really able to articulate with the 2005 rose arbor imagery, that that’s what they’re expecting to see again.”

The same agenda was covered in both meetings, including discussion on the traditional design, the color and look of the material used, sustainable materials and material durability.

Both meetings also included discussions to not replace the rose arbor, leaving it as a rose pathway instead, changing out the roses for nonclimbing varieties and improving irrigation.

Some citizens who attended the evening meeting said they advocated for this option because the area is “fine as it is,” with a little pruning, while others felt the city’s unfunded pension liability is a larger concern than installing another arbor. Some also took the time to express their concern over the process, making it clear that they wanted time for future input to come to a consensus on the final design.

Throne emphasized that there’s no deadline set or rush to complete the project, voicing his intent to take all concerns and discussed options into account.

“There isn’t a huge rush on this,” he said at the Wednesday evening meeting. “It’s more about having a good process so that it’s clearly articulated what should be done.”

He added that it’s also not the best process to discuss how much it costs first.

“You put yourself into all these boxes and then wind-up with a product that you’re really dissatisfied with,” he said. “You might be spending the dollars that you want to spend but you’re not going to get the satisfaction of what it is. If you start in the other direction, and come back with ‘ok, this is what we really want it to look like,’ but have very basic perimeters.”

An initial $117, 000 donation by former San Marino City Councilmember and Mayor Dr. Matthew Lin and his wife, Joy, was made in 2016 in memory of Dr. Lin’s parents who spent their last days in Lacy Park. The Lins have pledged a total of $200,000 over four years for the project, and former Interim City Manager Cindy Collins said in August that the city began a fundraising project to contribute toward the arbor as well.

Throne said there won’t be any more community meetings for the Lacy Park Rose Arbor, but community members will still be able to participate in the process when the project is brought to the city’s Design Review Committee, and later to the San Marino City Council on a “study session” day for discussion.

In the meantime, the Parks and Public Works Director said he has the plaques of the families who donated to help with sponsoring individual posts, construction of the structure and the arbor’s maintenance. The plaques are in his office and will be incorporated in whatever option is decided, those families will not be forgotten.