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 The New Park, But At What Cost?

By Susan Chasen

It has happened at least twice before that a proposal to acquire lower Topanga Canyon for parkland has fallen through. And it could happen again if relocation remains the only option for the "artist colony" community that has been quietly thriving at the mouth of the canyon for decades.

Currently, the American Land Conservancy, a private, non-profit organization based in San Francisco, is negotiating with LAACCO, corporate parent of the Los Angeles Athletic Club Corporation, to purchase virtually all of lower Topanga Canyon, which encompasses1,655 acres and extends three miles up Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

Such an acquisition would add an historic 15 percent to Topanga State Park and could make it possible to restore the Topanga estuary.

However, at this point, relocation of residents and removal of the 49 remaining homes is believed to be essential to the deal, and the residents don’t want to move. And they disagree with assumptions that suggest relocation shoul be required.

  
 VOL.24 NO. 13
June 29 - July 12, 2000
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 PHOTO BY KATIE DALSEMER

These folks are some of those who could lose their homes at the mouth of the Canyon--left to right: Scotty Dittrich, Michael Greene, Coliene Rentmeester, Bernt Capra, Diana Mathers, John Clemons, Norma Boehmer, Scott Dittrich and Sharon Dittrich.

"This is a viable community that is being wiped out," said Bernt Capra, director of the critically acclaimed film Mindwalk and a 21-year resident of the Rodeo Grounds located across Topanga Creek at the bottom of the Canyon.

"I would love them to buy it. I just don’t want them to tear down the houses…. They should not be in the business of destroying old neighborhoods."

According to Capra, the houses--which are all rented month to month from LAACCO--are indeed an affordable housing option for a community of filmmakers, painters, sculptors, writers and actors, many of whom struggle to make ends meet.

Previously, the American Land Conservancy’s project manager Jeff Stump said the rental rates were at the full market value. But seeing the sprawling idyllic properties, just a short walk from the beach, suggests that some features of the site, along with unofficial maintenance and improvements by residents themselves, are perhaps not being factored in.

Capra said he pays $1,000 a month for a four- to five-bedroom house on an acre of property where he lives with his three children.

According to Capra, this unusual artists’ community of mostly long-time residents also deserves a share of preservationist sentiment, as a culturally significant landmark of recognized artists and their families who are preserving a lifestyle that is dying out just as much as the area's frog inhabitants are.

Perhaps it could become some kind of living museum itself, proposed Capra.

"To me this is as unspoiled as it will ever be," said Capra, who notes that years of little change has allowed nature to flourish. "Most of it is just natural habitat."

The impact would be greater, according to Capra, if the property was made accessible as a public park.

"I would love it if the American Land Conservancy would take over the land to be stewards of the natural ecology and work with us to keep it that way."

WETLANDS RESTORATION: IS IT FEASIBLE?

For several residents, their greatest anger is over what they believe is a false assumption that their houses stand in the way of a wetlands restoration project--a false assumption they believe could be easily put right by visiting the area. In the meantime they face the threat of being forced out before a realistic assessment of the property is even made.

"This can never be returned to an estuary because the highway is in the way," says actor Mike Greene.

"Why isn’t someone from the Conservancy here looking it over?" asks Greene. "Come walk the property with us rather than looking at it on a map in San Francisco. Walk the property and talk to us."

So far, the residents say they have not been approached or notified by any party involved in the prospective sale.

According to residents, Topanga Creek could not naturally flood their homes, many of which have withstood seasonal rains year after year--with the exception of the 100-year flood of 1980--because they are built on higher ground. And similarly, they argue that the water table is not as high as has been suggested and that their septic systems are therefore not a significant source of contamination--certainly not more of a problem than the commercial users along PCH who have not been targeted for relocation.

However, even if a long-term wetlands restoration plan was to entail changes that could affect their homes, the residents don’t see the value of making these changes before changes are made to the PCH. Currently the creek has to be narrow enough to fit through the existing culvert under the highway or it could undermine a wall of fill dirt supporting the highway and a string of businesses located along it.

NO COMMUNICATION

The inconsistencies in targeting the residents for relocation and not the businesses, along with the lack of communication with residents early in the process, has led some residents to speculate about ulterior motives.

However, Stump says he’s still gathering information to put a deal together and just hasn’t been ready to talk yet.

"We want to sit down with them," Stump said. "They’re not being bypassed."

According to Stump, a relocation plan is still a likely requirement both to eliminate septic systems in the flood plain and to avoid putting a public parks agency in the position of becoming a landlord.

However, Stump did not have details of what such a plan might involve or what kind of flexibility might be allowed with regard to when relocation would be required. He suggested that the American Land Conservancy will create a relocation plan as part of the deal, but will not dictate what is done with the property once it is transferred to a Parks' agency.

"We’re merely trying to get it into public hands," said Stump. "Folks in the area have been trying to make sure this land is preserved."

Residents contend that the land can’t be developed anyway, and the presumption that they will be facing changes whether or not the parkland deal goes through is unfounded.

"There’s no threat of development here," says Scott Dittrich, who makes surfing films and has lived on the Rodeo Grounds since 1974. He was married there in 1982, and he and his wife have two teen-aged sons.

"Why wipe out a community if there’s no threat to anybody?" asks Dittrich.

According to Dittrich, the work they do together, partly thanks to their landlord’s disinterest--like rebuilding the footbridge from Topanga Canyon Boulevard after it washed away in a flood or maintaining the roads--have made them a close-knit community that could never be replicated. During the rainy season when the creek is high, they all walk in from Topanga Canyon Boulevard, helping each other out with parcels if needed.

"We’ve worked together because we’ve had to," said Dittrich. "We cope with all that kind of stuff. It’s made us a community."

But Stump insists that development to some extent is feasible and is a real threat.

"There are hurdles to any development," said Stump. "But they do have rights…. Development will happen if we don’t purchase it."

THE COUNTY WEIGHS IN

A possible further indication of LAACCO’s development interest is the company’s active involvement in the County’s drafting of a new Local Coastal Program that will set land-use for the area, according to Laura Shell, land use deputy for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Shell says LAACCO has been fighting County efforts to lower allowable housing densities on the property.

"We completely understand where the tenants are coming from and we want to make sure that what LAACCO and the American Land Conservancy propose is fair," said Shell.

Shell said she was surprised when she learned that the residents had not received any notice that negotiations were underway for a possible sale. "I think that needs to start soon," she said regarding opening channels of communication.

"We’re trying to do something good here, not something bad," said Shell. "We think the potential to become parkland in public ownership would be fantastic…. I think it’s something that can be resolved in a way that is very fair to the tenants."

Capra suggested a compromise that would allow tenants to negotiate final leases of 5 to 20 years before moving is required. After all, the parkland is forever and the restoration of the estuary is likely to take time.

Rosi Dagit, a conservation biologist for the Santa Monica Mountains Resource Conservation District, agrees that an alternative to relocation might be acceptable.

"I’m not of the mind that in order to achieve everything we want to achieve that we have to lose everything we have there," said Dagit. "I don’t think that necessarily everything in the flood plain has to go."

At the same time Dagit points out that it would be a shame if this opportunity were lost and the tenants ended up out eventually anyway.

"They are renters and they need to come up with a strategy that doesn’t mean blocking a very valuable opportunity for the 17 million residents of Los Angeles and for the whole nation."

TOPANGA LAGOON FEASIBILITY STUDY

Currently, Dagit is pursuing a grant of over $200,000 to do a feasibility study on restoration of the Topanga Lagoon which is the domain of Los Angeles County Beaches and Harbors and would not necessarily depend on the proposed parkland acquisition.

"It is a working lagoon," said Dagit. "But it’s not a working wetland."

She says the problem is that there are no fish: "That’s not a good thing."

Dagit said her goal is to provide good information that will prevent the problems Malibu Lagoon has run into by restoring the area before gathering important scientific data.

Topanga Lagoon was reportedly once larger than Malibu Lagoon.

Restoring wetlands and lagoons have the potential of both providing habitat for wildlife and for improving water quality.

About 10 years ago, according to Rodeo Grounds residents, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy was close to purchasing lower Topanga Canyon for $25 million. At that time, the residents sought to buy the parcel that includes their houses, but they were unsuccessful and the deal fell apart.

A similar problem arose about 30 years ago when the State Park was trying to buy lower Topanga.

"A LONG-HELD DREAM"

Roger Pugliese, chair of TASC, says protecting lower Topanga has been "a long-held dream for the majority of Topangans. No one wanted the Los Angeles Athletic Club to carry out its original plan to build out the area.

The American Land Conservancy’s involvement in negotiating for purchase is a positive step, says Pugliese. "However, as an organization representative of the community we are concerned that there is a compassionate stance taken towards the people who live there."

So far the American Land Conservancy, which has hired consultants to prepare a relocation plan, has promised to be "very fair," but residents don’t believe a "fair" relocation is possible.

"To say there’s another equal housing situation anywhere near the beach is ludicrous," said Dittrich, who argues that the California Coastal Act mandates affordable housing near the beach. "If you destroy these houses here, you are destroying the last affordable housing near the beach."

However, it seems as if these homes are a kind of accidental affordable housing arising from the property’s peculiar, prolonged limbo state, with LAACCO not focused on the current residential use or on making expensive improvements, and well-matched residents whose sensibilities wouldn’t want or need those improvements.

The Rodeo Grounds area is like a distillate of Topanga itself, an intimate little enclave bound together by fire and floods, with a high concentration of artists, artists’ children and a preference for un-neatness and minor hardships like parking and walking in, or staying home, during rains.

Stump says the ALC has completed successful relocations before with Limekiln Canyon State Park in Big Sur, though it involved fewer residents. Also, he said ALC founder and the inspiration for the lower Topanga purchase, Harriet Burgess, was involved in numerous relocations around Lake Tahoe when she was with the Trust for Public Land.

Other resident criticism of the purchase concerns details of the "mountain to the sea" trail idea, linking Trippet Ranch to the ocean. They believe such a trail would either be too long--going up through Fernwood--or too steep--connecting up to Parker Mesa Overlook. They see this as further evidence that the decision-makers are too far away.

However, according to Stump, the trail idea came from Topangans.

"I’m not an expert on that property," acknowledged Stump. "My job is not to build trails."

Those details, he said, will be considered when the property is parkland and a master plan is created.

According to Stump, Governor Gray Davis’ budget includes $40 million for completion of this purchase and related costs. However, he said he still does not have a state appraisal of the property and so the question of the price is still to be worked out.

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And a little further up the coast. . .

Malibu Coastal Land Fight

By Tony Morris

Each year more than 20 million visitors from this country and around the world visit the Santa Monica Mountains and explore the marvels of the largest urban park system in this country.

The City of Malibu stretches for 27 miles along the steep slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains. Once a home to Chumash Indians who lived there, Malibu gets its name from the Chumash word Humaliwo--"the surf sounds loudly."

Located on a flood plain, the civic center and the last major parcels of undeveloped land in Malibu lie adjacent to Malibu Creek which empties into the Pacific at Surfrider Beach, a mecca for surfers from all over the world.

The future use of this undeveloped land and the fate of the threatened wetlands at Malibu Lagoon could soon be decided by a development agreement entered into by the city of Malibu and the Malibu Bay Company, whose assets were recently purchased by billionaire Jerry Perenchio, owner of Univision, the global Spanish language network.

The citizens of Malibu have the last word in the fate of their city. As it now stands, pro-growth forces on the City Council and the Malibu Bay Company are on a collision course with the Malibu Coastal Land Conservancy (MCLC), which seeks to preserve the city's last open space for a wetlands restoration project that would halt wholesale development and allow natural wetlands systems to cleanse the millions of gallons of water flowing out of the Santa Monica Mountains--water that brings pesticides, poisons, septic overflow, animal waste and a host of other contaminated materials to the ocean.

 PHOTO BY PACIFIC WESTERN AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY

Will this potentially cleansing wetland be lost to development?

 A coalition composed of 30 groups, the Malibu Coastal Land Conservancy seeks to purchase the largest parcels of undeveloped land adjacent to Malibu's center in order to create a major wetlands restoration park instead of the usual commercial office buildings, stores, fast food restaurants, gas stations and movie multiplexes. The Malibu Coastal Land Conservancy hopes to reverse the process of growth and the destruction of a vital portion of California's wetlands. With more than 93% of its historic wetlands lost in the past 100 years, most of Southern California's flood plain and wetlands were obliterated when farms and roads--chiefly Pacific Coast Highway--stores, housing developments, offices and shopping centers were constructed.

According to the Malibu Coastal Land Conservancy: "California has rediscovered the function of wetlands for treating and cleansing water in an attractive natural setting that enhances wildlife." Before any of the wetlands restoration can even be considered, the MCLC must address political developments in Malibu. Without the cooperation of Jerry Perenchio, owner of the largest undeveloped parcels in the city, the MCLC cannot expect to reverse the current course of overdevelopment in Malibu. A basic development agreement drafted by current Mayor Tom Hasse and Councilmember Joan House, and signed by the Malibu Bay Company, allows the Company to develop key parcels in the city center within the next ten years.



MCLC member David Gottlieb, a long-time Topanga resident and a director of the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, says that the agreement entered into between Malibu and the Malibu Bay Company "opens the floodgates for sprawling overdevelopment in a style that is more befitting Newport Beach than the Malibu coastline. If this type of development gets through, Malibu will be burdened with a 100 percent increase in the existing commercial space from the intersection of Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) all the way to the Ventura County line."

In actual fact, the total square footage of commercial and retail space existing from Topanga Canyon Boulevard to the Ventura County line is 769,000, and planned development projects would add an additional one million square feet. Development on this scale will tax the already overburdened capacity of PCH, not to mention the water and waste systems of a city which has scant financial resources.

Gottlieb views the development plan as having been entered into without professional "legal arbitration or real estate experience on behalf of the City of Malibu." The House-Hasse Agreement--negotiated by Councilmember House and Mayor Hasse--is seen as a "fait accompli, take-it-or-leave-it" agreement, without an opportunity for the City to require further amendments. Gottlieb also says that City Council members are attempting to convince Malibu residents that there is no public funding available to purchase the major undeveloped parcels, when State government is routinely allocating funding to purchase property even in the absence of willing sellers.

Although the Malibu Coastal Land Conservancy plans to purchase the Malibu Bay Company/Perenchio parcels and will initiate a major campaign to secure funding, at the present time Perenchio has demonstrated no intention of selling his holdings to any group. It appears that the fate of Malibu's last remaining open space is far from decided. One can only surmise that the spirit of Malibu's legendary former landholder, Rhoda May Rindge, is smiling down on the proceedings as the drama continues to unfold with no certain end in sight.

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Summing Up Topanga Days

By Michele Johnson

In the aftermath of what might be another record-breaking Topanga Days, the question has been swirling around the community: How much did we make? Well, according to an exhausted Linda Hinrichs, president of the Topanga Woman's Club that sponsors the event as a fundraiser to maintain the Community House and grounds, "The figures aren't all in and won't be in for a while." Speaking just 2 1/2 weeks after the event, she said, "Believe it or not, the workers are still in recovery. They had to give up a lot of time in their lives."

But speaking in round figures, approximately $70,000+ was grossed by the event, and expenses are expected to be about half that amount. So, after expenses the profit will be somewhere in the range of $30-$40 thousand. The Woman's Club tries to follow the non-profit organization rule of thumb that no more than half the gross be spent on expenses.

By the next meeting, on September 14, the figures should be finalized, and anyone who would like to attend that meeting can see the final figures, says Hinrichs. "It's a volunteer organization, folks. If you want more information, we'd be thrilled for you to get involved."

Generally speaking, each year the Community House needs about $50,000 for operating expenses. This does not included capital improvements like the updated handicapped toilets that were recently installed. Regular expenses include insurance; ball field and grounds repairs and maintenance, which include the cost of a full-time caretaker; Disaster Committee donations to the community; equipment purchases; licenses and permits; rental expenses, including a rental agent and maintenance; property and sales tax; utilities; accounting and legal services and a host of smaller charges.

Each year, the Woman's Club counts on Topanga Days to bring in about $30,000 of that total. The Club relies on rental income, the Tough Topanga 10-K and the Swap Meet in November to raise the rest of the $50,000 needed to maintain the Community House.

Hinrichs feels that Topanga Days is "not all about a buck." This year, in fact, the Club cut down on advertising and radio spots to keep the event from exploding beyond its borders. The shuttle service this year was a trial investment. Next year, Hinrichs says, they hope to expand the service and advertise it early and hard. They are also discussing opening up at least part of the ball field to ease overcrowding. If you want to become part of the planning process for next year, Hinrichs urges you to get involved. For example, even though "everyone was invited," to a wrap-up meeting held on June 18, only seven people showed up--"the same names, same faces," Hinrichs said. So, the message seems to be "Put up, or shut up."


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Burglary on Cheney Drive

By Tony Morris

On Thursday, June 8, a daytime burglary was reported at a residence on Cheney Drive. After returning to her home, at noon on the day of the burglary, the owner did not notice she had been burglarized until she went into her bedroom where her mother-in-law's jewelry was kept. Living at a remote location, the owner had trusted the family's two barking dogs to protect the house. The burglar seemed to know that the family's dogs bark but don't bite.

Two witnesses who happened to be in the vicinity observed a 1970s convertible with a new metallic blue paint job parked in the victim's driveway at 10:30 that morning. The vehicle had a new white leather or naugahyde interior. A running light on the right front fender had been removed and the turn indicator on the left fender was also missing. According to two witnesses, a tall, well-built African-American male dressed in a white t-shirt, white shorts and tennis shoes and wearing two fanny packs, was observed walking toward a newly constructed back entrance to the house which had been installed last October.
The burglar made off with a laptop computer used by the victim's son to complete his junior year in high school. Jewelry--belonging to the victim's mother-in-law who died last December, and her daughter--was also taken from the house. Although the jewelry was of little monetary value, most of the items meant a lot to the family as they were keepsakes from family members now deceased.

The family would like the authorities to find the burglar but "we'd be satisfied if we could just have the jewelry and keepsakes back. If we got those things back and knew the burglar would never come around again, we'd be satisfied." Detective Kimball of Lost Hills Sheriff's Station would only say that "if there is any workable information, we will follow up on it." But, he added, "There are no leads at this point."

If anyone has any information regarding the burglary they are asked to call the Lost Hills Station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department at (818) 878-1808 and refer to File Number 400-03569-1033-065 or mail a note to : Burglary c/o TCTC, P. O. Box 1085, Topanga, CA 90290.

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Beach Bus: Use it or Lose it!

By Michele Johnson

The summer beach bus is back, but due to low ridership last year, this second chance may be its last.

The Beach Bus is scheduled to run Monday through Friday from June 19 through September 4. Due to popular demand, service has been expanded to run from Woodland Park Estates at the bottom of Topanga Canyon Boulevard on the county/city line about 1/4 mile from Mulholland, to Santa Monica Beach by the pier, with a new extra stop at Topanga State Beach. In Topanga. Pickup points will be at the General Store, Topanga Elementary School, and Viewridge. (See ad in the current newsstand Messenger issue for a detailed schedule.)

Bus fare is '60s cheap--just 50 cents a ride, or 25 cents for seniors and the disabled. The Beach Bus was a Canyon fixture in Supervisor Ed Edelman's day, and kids especially enjoyed being able to plan their summertime activities around it. About 10 years ago the service was discontinued, only to be brought back last year through the efforts of Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. The $27,000 cost of the Beach Bus is being paid for out of Prop A transportation funds, which go for "special projects," according to Senior Field Deputy Susan Nissman, and not for regular MTA programs.

"We never expected that ridership will make up the cost, but our justification for the expenditure is ridership. There must be a great enough need to basically give away funds." The Beach Bus was given a second chance because last year, Nissman says, "Our public information came out late. Though used, it was not used to the degree that would show it was filling a great need." With more exposure and expanded routes, she hopes this year ridership will increase.

Also, Nissman says, Supervisor Yaroslavsky is trying to get a partnership going with Los Angeles City's 11th district councilperson Cindy Miscikowski so that the line can be extended--possibly even this summer--to Ventura Boulevard. "Historically, we did have joint participation," Nissman pointed out, when the 11th district was under former councilperson Marvin Braude. "She [Miscikowski] has expressed interest and she is trying to find the funds."

If the Beach Bus runs to Ventura Boulevard, it could encourage a whole new group of riders who want to go from the Valley to the beaches. "We want to make this as much of a benefit as we can," said Nissman. And, adds Supervisor Yaroslavsky, "I would urge all Topanga residents to take advantage of our Beach Bus service. It's one of the best summer bargains around, and for those living in the Canyon, this is the most hassle-free way to enjoy the beach I know."

Is next year contingent on ridership this year? "Yes, definitely," said Nissman. So use it or lose it.

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