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 Moving Topanga Underground?

By Susan Chasen

The features listed on the giant "for sale" sign between the video store and Topanga Center were too many to read safely from a passing car. However its beginnings--"24-acre wooded estate, historic lodge and dancehall"--were enough to set the imagination wandering.

Well, it's too late for fantasies now. This historic piece of central Topanga, extending back into the hills from the boulevard, has been sold. The art studio and workshop, the natural springs, private park-like setting with trails and horse facilities--all sold.

But unlike the lovelier features on the sign, item three, "income property-mixed use" is a little more complicated. For the last 30 years that "income property" has been occupied by Richard Sherman and his Topanga Underground business-another piece of local history. Now, however, Sherman and a few unofficial tenants-among them Blackie (David Lamoreaux), who was this year's honorary chairman of Topanga Days, have been asked to leave.

 VOL.24 NO. 14
July 13 - 26, 2000


"It feels like I'm getting divorced," says Sherman, noting he's actually been at that location longer than he's been married: "I've been here half my life."

Sherman is now grappling with the decision of whether he can keep his business going and afford the expense of moving."I'm no longer 43. I'm 63 and that changes my outlook," says Sherman.

"Given my 'druthers,' I'd have a heart attack coming up these stairs in 20 years and that'd be fine."


After 30 years, Dick Sherman will have to move.

The sale of the property was completed at the end of June, and Sherman has until November 30 to move out, which is going to be tight no matter what he decides.

Sherman, who once worked at Rocketdyne, moved to Topanga in the 1960s and became a grading contractor. In 1971, the owner of what was then a 46-acre property-attorney Simi Dabah-allowed John Nordine to move his nursery and building supply shop onto a corner of it in exchange for keeping the weeds cut. Soon Sherman and several others in the construction trades moved there as well.

Then, said Sherman, "They busted us."

Two years and several thousand dollars later, with legal help from Dabah, the corner of the property which is now home to Topanga Underground was rezoned for light manufacturing with tight restrictions on what would be allowed.

"They only granted it because it was four local contractors," said Sherman.

At that time his company was called Topanga Unlimited because, said Sherman, "We would do almost anything." Later, he began to specialize in the netherworldly construction of septic systems, water mains and utilities, and renamed it Topanga Underground.

Now Sherman does about $1 million in business annually, and keeps about three crews on the job every day. With 15 employees, Sherman said his weekly payroll is around $13,000. And it's not always easy to make.

"This is not a grocery store," said Sherman. "The construction business doesn't work that way. You have to be practically a bank to finance this stuff. You spend a lot of time chasing money."

While Sherman is proud that his business is more than just a pager and an answering machine operation-there is someone to answer the phones from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and crews are ready to go at anytime-he acknowledges, "That does make me more expensive."

"How much longer do I want to be rustling up the $20,000 [a week] to keep this thing going?" asks Sherman. "This is not a terribly lucrative operation."

During his 30 years in business, Sherman estimates he's been at half the houses in the Canyon and has had some business with probably a third of all the current residents in Topanga and Malibu, many of whom call after learning they have no idea where their septic tanks are.

"We get a call like that every week," said Sherman.

The remnants from all these jobs, like a set from The Flintstone's, line the edges of the Topanga Underground yard. Sherman calls it his "bone pile" and says it's continually picked over when he needs something. "The kind of stuff I use does not wear out," says Sherman. Unfortunately, that means a lot to move and as of now, no place to move to.

Right now, Sherman's best option is the Topanga Turnout site, but there are a host of costly problems that come with such a move. Sherman said he is in escrow to buy the roughly 15,000-square-foot parcel for $65,000, but he expects he will have to remove about 25,000 cubic yards of dirt, at a cost of more than $200,000, to make the place usable.

"The geology is a big problem," said Sherman of the site that was home to Rendezvous restaurant and several shops until a landslide three years ago shut it all down. "I'm the ideal person to buy it because I can mitigate the issues."

But, even doing the work himself does not alleviate the cost of moving all the dirt. Added to that, Sherman said, would be the cost of buying or leasing a mobile office and about $25,000 just to move his business. Plus, he would be out-of-zone and have to spend $10,000 to apply for a conditional use permit.

The way it might work, Sherman explained, is that he would seek a grading permit which would allow him to have an office on the property during the grading. Then the clearing might begin in September, with two months to clear enough to make it possible to move part of the business up there.

Also, since he was one of the original applicants when his current site was rezoned and permitted, he thinks it might be possible to duplicate those terms at a new site. But there are a lot of "ifs" in that scenario, and it still leaves other issues unresolved.

"I don't know what I'm going to do with all the containers," said Sherman. He has nine ocean containers filled with assorted septic system, conduit and pipeline parts, and there will not be room for them at the Turnout anytime soon.

Other than the Turnout there is essentially no alternative in Topanga. Other manufacturing-zone properties --including Sassafras, north of Legion Hall and behind Topanga Lumber--all have other problems that render them unsuitable. Another option is to lease a yard in Malibu where most of his work is anyway. But, Sherman said it would cost twice what he currently pays.

Sherman, who is still doing geology tests on the Turnout site, said it's "50-50" whether he will try it.
"I haven't quite made up my mind," said Sherman. "I will decide this month which way I'm gonna go."
In the meantime, Blackie, 76, who has lived on the property since the '70s working for Sherman and acting as watchman, has already moved out.

Sherman had hoped to find a place for him, but nothing worked out.

Blackie said he felt like he was a kind of aesthetic sacrificial lamb to help the sale go through. "I was the first trailer to go," he said. "They took my trailer and demolished it. It was kind of symbolic."

For now Blackie says he is "babysitting" a house. But once it is sold, he doesn't know what he will do.
"Usually you inform enough people and something works out. But that was the old days," said Blackie.
"Life isn't a bowl of cherries. You gotta take the bitter with the sweet."

This kind of displacement, Blackie says, is happening to a lot of people. "The place gets sold and there's no place to go. It's gotten too expensive. It's all money, and that's what happens."

Next to go was Joyce Williams, who is also in her seventies and a long-time tenant on the property with her numerous cats.

Sherman said she has cleaned his house for 23 years in exchange for rent. He said he will continue to provide for her housing. She was hospitalized just over a month ago, but he said she is doing better now than she has in years.

Sherman said he knew this kind of upheaval could come eventually, since the property has been on and off the market for several years. He was supportive of the sale going through, since his business might have been viewed as standing in the way if it hadn't. Then he might have been forced to leave more quickly.

The property was once part of a larger holding owned by Fred Solomon and extending across the Center to the other side of the Post Office. The old house or hunting lodge--reportedly built in 1909--a spring-fed pool, and festivities hosted on the site by Solomon are pictured in The Topanga Story.

The sellers this time were sculptor Connie Mississippi and her husband, environmental attorney Bob Sulnick, who bought the property in 1993 and have now moved out of state. The property is believed to have sold for over $2 million, but somewhat under the $2.4 million asking price.

The buyer is reportedly C. Michael Greene, director of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which produces the annual Grammy awards show.

As we go to press, Greene is out of town and cannot be reached to comment on his plans for the property.

For Sherman, this question of whether these changes are an ending or a kind of unsought-after new beginning is something he tries not to think about: "There are days it gets to me," says Sherman, who is surrounded by pictures and memorabilia on the walls of his office. A fading old Topanga Unlimited sign, painted by Topanga artist Rolland Diehl, hangs above his desk. The colors, Sherman explains, are the same as he uses for his distinctive truck motif-light green with blue flame-like streaks trimmed in red. A shag-carpeted cat tower with a bed on top is arm's length away so he can easily reach Muffet.

"Certainly one of my concerns is what do I do with Muffet," says Sherman stroking his 13-year-old gray and white fluffy office cat. She's his nicest cat yet, and he worries that the Turnout move will put her too close to the road.

As for the provision in his will that a third of his ashes be mixed with earth from 201 South Topanga Canyon Boulevard, said Sherman, "I might go change that."

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Station 69 to Lose Warren?

By Penny Taylor

Just a short while ago I wrote an article about long-time Topanga resident and firefighter, Captain Warren Chase, being transferred back to our Los Angeles County Fire Station 69 ("Station 69 Welcomes Warren Back," Messenger, V. 23 No. 6, p.1).

Now for the kicker. We could lose Captain Chase by the end of July.

Got your attention?!?!

It seems that firemen hired prior to a certain date in 1997 are subject to mandatory retirement at the end of the month of their 60th birthday. Firemen hired after that date are not subject to forced retirement based on their age. Duh. Is there something wrong with this picture?

As we go to press, Captain Chase is waiting to find out if a restraining order will hold off this forced retirement based on his age. He'd like to continue to serve the community for a few more years.
Health isn't the issue here. The man's in great shape and he's good at his job. This reeks of age discrimination.

Not only that, but there are other Warren's out there, as someone pointed out. There are women and minorities hired prior to 1997 who will soon be affected by this regulation which, by the way, also affects the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Why should we lose good people based on age?

Initial reaction from Topangans has been shock, and in some cases sarcasm. One resident snidely responded, "Great! We finally have someone who's actually good at his job and cares, and we get rid of him!"

Or, as Pat Burke quipped when he was told of the forced retirement, "Why? Is he like, old and used up? We can get more work out of him."

Captain Chase came to this calling later in life, but they meshed so well-this man, this job, these mountains. His passion is undeniable, his strength self-evident, his commitment unwaverable. To pit him and his men against our terrifying aggressor, Fire, is to know that we will get the upper hand.
He should not just "quietly go away!"

We'll be keeping you posted on the legal proceedings and will be delving into the case of two firemen in Los Angeles who served quite capably into their 70s.

So let us hear from you. We'll keep checking "Mouth of the Canyon" or you can drop a note off at the Messenger office.

Click here to Mouth off about this issue!



Firesafe Wrap-Up

By Bonnie McCourt

In April 1998 the Topanga Citizen's Firesafe Committee was formed under a mandate from Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky to, among other things, "provide a forum for local community input on related issues and to provide a vehicle for community information and education about fire risk management." The 10-member Firesafe Committee was drawn from a cross-section of concerned Topanga citizens.
During the two years of its mandate, the Firesafe Committee helped open a healthy dialogue between the Fire Department and the people of Topanga regarding issues of fire safety and the way they impact the quality of life in Topanga.

Based on its findings, the Topanga Citizen's Firesafe Committee has submitted its Final Summary Report and Recommendations to Supervisor Yaroslavsky and County Fire Department officials. (The report is available to be read on our web site at

Although it has completed its original mandate, the Firesafe Committee has voted to continue, and will hold its next public meeting in the offices of the Resource Conservation District, 122 North Topanga Canyon Boulevard, on Thursday, August 8 at 7 p.m. For further information please contact the Committee's new chairperson, Anne-Christine von Wetter, at (310) 455-2600.

Click here for full text of the Firesafe Committee's Report


In Tony Morris's recent article ("Feeling Chipper Again," Messenger, V. 24 No. 12, p. 6), we neglected to mention a significant contribution from Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's office that allowed our initial undertaking to be the success it was. We regret the omission and are happy for the opportunity to correct the oversight.

-Topanga Citizens' Firesafe Committee

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Marco Polo Ends at California Trail


Starting down the California Trail, from left: Martin Sanchez, Eric Reigler, owner Wendy Lee Krause, Denny Crabb and Steven Jaffe.

 By Tony Morris

Legendary Topanga establishment, Marco Polo's, has been born again as the California Trail Restaurant and Wateringhole. Owner Wendy Krause has assumed active management, after having been absent from day-to-day operations of the restaurant for ten years. Krause says she will be making improvements which will be "inviting and reflect positively on the community." The restaurant will provide an improved patio to accommodate "smoking friends," and a television will be added for sporting events.

As for California Trail's menu, it will be "reworked and improved to include most of the old Marco Polo's favorites." Soon to be added are Polynesian ribs, sandwiches and a real Caesar salad.
Krause also intends to provide home delivery in Topanga, and she advises Topangans to "look for our ads in the Messenger and a full menu in your mailbox soon." Marco Polo's is located at 1704 North Topanga Canyon Boulevard, telephone (310) 455-7111.

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