VOL.24 NO. 11
June 1 - 14, 2000

New Woodlands Ordinance: Good, Bad or Just Plain Confusing?

By Susan Chasen

The County Regional Planning Commission has tentatively approved a new "Woodland or Protected Tree Permit" ordinance that extends protections like those currently applied to oak trees to three additional tree species, and creates new "habitat level" protection for groups of trees deemed to be "woodlands."

The Commission signaled its intent to approve the measure with a 3 to 1 vote on Monday, May 15 after a brief final public hearing and approval of a few proposed changes. Since a final vote has not been scheduled, however, it is uncertain when the ordinance will be submitted to the Board of Supervisors.

Already some Topangans are concerned about aspects of the often confusing ordinance which seems potentially burdensome for ordinary residents--particularly the new woodland provisions. But County planners and proponents of the ordinance insist that it will become clearer once guidelines for the ordinance are completed. Also, they suggest that despite the greater scope of the ordinance, some cost-saving improvements have been made over the current oak tree ordinance.

Under the new ordinance, Western sycamores, California walnuts and Joshua trees will be protected as oaks are now. Also, tree diameters that will trigger permit requirements have been reduced from 8 inches to 6 inches at a height of 4.5 feet.

For the most part, the protected trees portion of the ordinance is pretty straightforward. The truly complicated part of the ordinance pertains to the protection of six "woodland" habitats.

In the ordinance, a "woodland" is defined as any group of three or more trees that stand within 15 feet of the driplines of each other and which are comprised of characteristic tree species for a particular kind of woodland habitat including at least one "keystone" species for that habitat.


For example, in an oak woodland habitat the oak would be the "keystone" species, while the other trees might also be oaks or one of several "associated" species for that habitat such as Digger and Coulter Pines in certain areas. In a riparian habitat there are several "keystone" species, including sycamores, cottonwoods, alders and willows, along with several other identified "associated" species. Other habitats in the ordinance include desert, island, coniferous and walnut woodlands.

Once a woodland is identified, all the vegetation falling within the area between the trees and extending five feet beyond the driplines of the outermost trees is protected. So, just as with the woodland trees, removal of, or encroachment into the plants and shrubs of the understory will not be allowed without a permit. Permits for woodland impacts will generally require a Biological Constraints Analysis carrying a minimum fee of $1,000 for County review and inspections.

However, woodlands under one-fifth of an acre, or with fewer than five "keystone" trees, will be exempted from the Biological Constraints Analysis requirement as will encroachment-only, or single tree removal applications, voluntarily planted woodlands, and projects requiring Environmental Impact Reports.

Generally, single tree removal permits cost $487. If a public hearing is required because several trees are going to be impacted or because of protests from adjacent property owners, the fee is $2,123. Also, replacement trees and woodlands have to be planted as mitigation, or equivalent payment made to support other replanting programs.


TASC chair Roger Pugliese called the ordinance a "double-edged sword."

"In one respect, it makes things more restrictive against developers" said Pugliese. "But now that all these other trees have been added, it restricts people like us. In that respect, it works against the residents of the Canyon."

It's hard to predict how this ordinance will affect people trying to do required maintenance, such as putting in a new leach field for their homes, said Pugliese. "If there are three walnut trees in the way, you can't do it. A developer can buy his way out of this a lot faster than the individual homeowner--they will have to go through more hoops, but it doesn't mean they're not going to be able to do it. It just means they have to go through more hoops and pay more money."

Adding to the confusion surrounding this ordinance are the many changes that continue to be made even now that the measure has been tentatively approved. Even the title "Woodland or Protected Tree Permit" seems to imply a degree of indecision. It was actually worded that way to refer to the two separate types of permits addressed in the ordinance.

"Many of our ordinances are confusing to the lay person," admitted Annie Lin, acting senior regional planning assistant. Lin said the planning staff is finalizing the ordinance's guidelines portion that will spell things out more clearly.

The goal of the ordinance, which revises the Oak Tree ordinance adopted in 1982, is to shift the emphasis from protecting individual mature trees to preserving woodland communities of different ages into the future.

"It's definitely a step forward in terms of looking at habitat as a whole instead of just looking at individual trees," said Lin.


Rosi Dagit, conservation biologist for the Resource Conservation District agrees. She says the ordinance does several important things to ensure the future of threatened woodland communities in the Santa Monica Mountains.

"This is a paradigm shift from just looking at individual trees, it's a remarkable effort on the part of Los Angeles County," said Dagit, who has provided technical input on the ordinance as it was being drafted over the last year and a half.

Among its innovations, said Dagit, are baseline aerial photographs from November 1999 that can be used to reward people who do not remove smaller trees to avoid coming under the ordinance--a practice, she says, that was encouraged in the current ordinance. According to Dagit, when these smaller trees shown in the photographs--or new trees not shown in the photographs--reach six inches in diameter, they can be used as mitigation credit if a property owner needs to take out another tree. This way the County will not just be protecting mature aging trees into the future until they begin to fail, but will be encouraging new woodland growth, Dagit explained.

Also, the current costly requirement, that every protected tree within 200 feet of any proposed construction site has to be surveyed, has been dropped as an incentive for people to avoid impacting trees and woodlands when they plan their projects.

At the hearing, Dagit congratulated the Commission on the ordinance, saying: "You've come a long way. You've set the stage for allowing people the reasonable use of their property, but you make the point that the trees are part of the infrastructure."

Preserving this infrastructure, says Dagit, is critical to slope stability, ground water recharge and reducing storm water runoff --and it is worth the costs in the short term.

"I think the long-term benefits to the community are substantial," said Dagit. "We have resources here that don't exist anywhere else on the planet."

According to Dagit nearly 90 percent of the woodlands in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area have been lost. The largest remaining California walnut woodland in the Santa Monicas is in Summit Valley Park.



Septics and Fire: Topanga Facts of Life

By Rosi Dagit

Sooner or later, septics fail and wildfires roar. So how do we deal with these facts of life? The Topanga Watershed Committee and Topanga Citizen's Firesafe Committee are trying hard to get everyone up to speed on the latest ways to cope.

"In the past few years we have seen a large number of septic systems failing prematurely," opened Topanga engineer Richard Sherman--at a meeting jointly sponsored by those community groups on Saturday, May 13 at Topanga Elementary. "This has prompted the County to begin to implement regulations that have been on the books for years, as well as a few new ones." The County's ultimate goal is to make the approval process more consistent and to prevent premature failures from happening.

The lifetime of a house is around 100 years, but a typical septic system is good for only 20-30 years. Obviously, the County won't tear down the house. The newly implemented regulations will make it possible to use alternative systems to help achieve water quality standards, but only for existing homes. Newly developed lots or remodels of over 50% require compliance to the regulations for a standard septic system. This translates into big bucks if your system fails.
The major impact of the new regulations concerns testing. It used to be possible to drill a hole for the perc test, use that to establish ground water levels and then backfill 10 feet above ground water so the hole could be used for the seepage pit. One hole drilled into the weathered sandstone found throughout the Canyon can cost upwards of $5,000. Now the test hole is just used to establish ground water levels, and additional holes need to be drilled for the perc tests and actual pits. The costs add up quickly.

"The real problem is not how to treat the waste, but what to do with the water," mused Sherman. "There are now lots of great ways to improve the water quality, but the amount of water used by a normal four-person home is still several hundred gallons every day going into the system. It is critical to reduce water use and take every possible step to ensure that the system is working properly."

The Elementary School auditorium was filled with all kinds of filters, baffles and green boxes to allow folks to see for themselves how the new technology works to help extend the life of a septic system. A major cause of failure is when the leach field or seepage pit gets clogged with solids and stops percolating. "For every 1,000 gallons of water that goes through the septic tank, a pound of solids gets put into the drainage system." noted Sherman.


One simple way to reduce the impacts to the septic system is to inoculate the tank with super micro-organisms that set up shop and do a great job of breaking everything down. Your grandmother's trick of adding a yeast cube to the toilet once a month was a great idea, only now there are products with a whole suite of super critters that love the poop and really keep it under control. Be careful though, that septic-saver computer call that we all get once a month is a scam. A list of several products that really work is being compiled at the RCD office. Call for more information.

Steve Braband and Paul Tantet of BioSolutions then showed off all the new ways to reduce the amount of solids leaving the tank and extend the life of the system substantially. For around $100, there is a simple T-filter that is inserted into the septic tank that collects and biologically breaks down organic solids. Over 50% of the solids are filtered out, and it is guaranteed to work for 5 years without clogging. It is easy to install, and maintenance is incredibly simple. You simply hose it off every few years when the tank is pumped.

For those with more water volume, AdvanTex cloth filters that come in fiberglass boxes the size of a small folding table are now available. These incredibly efficient and reliable systems allow the water to move slowly through the filters, reducing solids to two parts per million, and providing output water that meets secondary treatment standards. They work by pumping small doses of water into sprayers above the cloth filters every five minutes. A diverse microbial community gets established on the filters, and biologically cleanses the water. They are the perfect fit for problem systems on small lots, or hilly locations where more extensive sand filters or leaching systems just aren't possible.

Another clever solution involves using subsurface drip systems to irrigate root systems of landscaping. Surface discharge of graywater is forbidden, but the new underground systems are more gopher-proof and longer lasting. Maybe this is a way to increase septic function and benefit fire safety by irrigating that 30-foot zone around the house!


The EPA has now begun to enforce more stringent water quality effluent standards throughout the country. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board has been sued by Heal the Bay to enforce compliance locally. The recognition that sewer systems are not the preferred way to deal with wastes in sensitive resource areas like the Santa Monica Bay has paved the way for looking at alternative ways to meet water quality standards.

"Los Angeles County is slowly moving towards requiring professional maintenance and certification of all systems. The industry is working on certifying engineers, so that there is more consistency in the whole evaluation process. The costs for maintenance of systems installed in Malibu runs at close to $300 a year. They are hooked into a phone line so that constant monitoring is possible." noted Braband. More innovative systems are coming online in the area, and the County appears to be allowing their use, especially when there is no other alternative. Tom Bates, a long-time Topanga realtor, raised another problem issue--setback limitations. The required setback distance from oak trees, or a drainage or creek to the seepage pit or leach field can further reduce options for installing new systems or repairing old ones. It will take several more years and lots of money before the whole thing gets sorted out.

[see the Woodland Ordinance article above for even more complications to this issue--Web Editor]

"We can't impress upon people enough that they need to do everything they can to keep their septic system functional, even if it means spending $5,000 now for one of the cloth filters. Preventing a failure will always be cheaper in the long run than having to replace an entire system," agreed both Sherman and Braband.


Los Angeles County Forester Keith Deagon next stepped in to introduce the coordinated fire safety planning process from the Fire Department: "We're here to keep you safe. It becomes interesting trying to set priorities which incorporate all the issues--access, sensitive resources and the diverse needs of mountain communities like Topanga, which is in the middle of a fire corridor. Our job is complex, and we depend on your cooperation to help."

Forester Frank Vidales then explained the components of fire planning systems--weather (wind, temperature and humidity), topography, fuel moisture and age: "Structure loss is often due to smoldering embers, not always direct flames. The biggest single thing that you can do to protect your house, after getting rid of a wood roof, is to break up the fuel continuity to create a defensible space."

There are several ways of reducing fuel loads, from prescribed burns to the new brush crusher, according to Forester Mike Takashida. "We have a very careful set of rules regarding prescribed burns, and we are not afraid to call them off if conditions aren't perfect." The key to making firesafe landscaping work is to integrate reduced fuel removal with erosion control and slope protection.

"The 30 feet around the house is the most critical," emphasized Deagon. All brush clearance in Topanga is required to be completed by May 1. Efforts are being made to work with the Fair Plan inspectors and train local station firefighters to do a better job inspecting properties.

"We DO NOT WANT 200 FEET OF BARE SOIL!", noted Scott Gardener, the area coordinator for the Los Angeles Forestry Department. [Instead, you should ] "thin your brush, break up the fuel ladder, and reduce vertical and horizontal continuity. Topanga is full of fuel, from houses to trees and brush. You want to have your property able to stand alone when the wildfire comes through. Anyone interested in having a private consultation with the Fire Department is encouraged to sign up at Station 69 for the 410-T program. This will help you develop a multi-year plan to create a firesafe landscape and learn about additional ways to keep your home safe."

"Topangans have a unique opportunity to benefit from the free expertise of the fire experts," summarized David Totheroh, chairman of the Topanga Canyon Citizen's Firesafe Committee. The Committee has almost finished the report on its two-year mandate, and is seeking volunteers to help keep the committee going. Said Totheroh, "We have come a long way in working with the Fire Department to institute more environmentally sensitive practices in Topanga. Take advantage of this, and together we can make the Canyon a safer place to live." Great advice!

 Checklist of Brush Clearance Requirements

Clear and maintain vegetation (native and ornamental) up to 200 feet or to property line,
around all structures

1. Weed-whip grasses.
2. Eliminate dead material in shrubs, brush, and trees.
3. Prune all shrubs, brush, and trees up off the ground to one-third the height of the vegetation, or six feet,          whichever is less.
4. Maintain or clear vegetation 10' on each side of roadways.
5. Limb trees up to at least 16 feet vertical clearance for emergency access--additional vertical clearance          may and can be required.
6. Remove dead material--leaves, needles, and twigs--from roofs.
7. Make sure no plant material or branches are within 10' of chimney outlet.
8. Place and store combustible materials (firewood, manure, compost, etc.) 30 feet or more from structures.
9. Clear combustible materials (grass, trash, firewood, etc.) a minimum of 10 feet around liquid propane 
           storage tanks.
10. Make sure all cut vegetation is removed from site or chipped to no more than a few inches in depth
           and is spread out.
11. Provide a minimum of three-feet of clearance around all fire hydrants.

NOTE: Properties with steep slopes which have done excessive brush clearance, or lack of vegetative cover
               on the slope, risk the potential for an erosion problem.


No Los Alamos in Los Angeles!

By Tony Morris

Representatives from a number of California homeowners' associations held a press conference on Wednesday, May 17 at El Cariso Regional Park in Sylmar to discuss how they might prevent potentially disastrous wildfires from occurring in Southern California this summer--experts warn this could be one of the worst fire seasons in recent years.

President of the San Fernando Valley Federation of Homeowners Gordon Murley, in discussing a "prescribed burn" intentionally set by the United States Forest Service which subsequently went out of control, told the assembled media, "The tragic wildfire that consumed Los Alamos in New Mexico should serve as a wake-up call for officials in California. Had the federal agencies had proper aerial support, and used it effectively in an initial attack, it is possible that the Los Alamos tragedy could have been averted. We hope that local officials will take heed."

Murley noted that last December's wildfire above Arcadia was allowed to burn for nearly a week because the Forest Service refused an offer by Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman to provide early use of the County's two leased SuperScooper airplanes, which had been used effectively days earlier to battle the Glendale-La Cañada fire.

While praising the preparation of the Los Angeles City and County Fire Departments, homeowners urged city and county leaders, together with Governor Davis and other state officials, to purchase SuperScoopers rather than lease the aircraft from the province of Quebec for 60 days each year.

Anne-Christine von Wetter, a Topangan who is a member of the California Fire Safe Council asked, "I wonder why California and the United States trail so far behind the rest of the industrialized world in using modern technology and initial-attack aircraft to both fight and prevent wildfires. They don't have New Mexico-type disasters in Europe, and we should not have them here."

It was pointed out that 1999 was the second worst fire year in California history, with six people killed, 612 homes and other structures destroyed, and more than 750,000 acres of woodland and watershed burned.



 A New Park in Our Future?

By Susan Chasen

Recent reports--that a move is afoot to acquire lower Topanga Canyon for a history-making addition to Topanga State Park and for restoration of the Topanga estuary--seem to have appeared as if in a dream.

And, as it turns out, they are from a dream--the dream of Harriet Burgess who established the American Land Conservancy in 1990 with this acquisition in mind.

Now, 10 years and $260 million in protected lands later, the American Land Conservancy is optimistic that its original goal of protecting lower Topanga Canyon is within reach.

In January, the American Land Conservancy (ALC), a private non-profit organization based in San Francisco, acquired a purchase option on the property from owner LAACCO (Los Angeles Athletic Club Corporation) Ltd., according to Jeff Stump, ALC project manager.

"Our vision for that property is to restore the wetlands which used to be larger than Malibu Lagoon," said Stump. "Eventually, it could be an amazing restored wetland area."

This is especially important, he said, because California has lost almost all of its wetland habitat areas--less than three percent remain.


Also, with the prospect of a "mountain to the sea" trail extending from Trippet Ranch down to a restored Topanga estuary, Topanga State Park could become the flagship of the state park system in Southern California, said Stump.

The lower Topanga Canyon property consists of 1,655 acres and would represent a 15 percent addition to Topanga State Park. The property extends about three miles up from Pacific Coast Highway to the boundary of Topanga State Park, which is denoted by a pipe marker on the south side of Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

Stump explained that ALC president Harriet Burgess, who was formerly the Western Regional Vice President of the Trust for Public Land, formed ALC around acquiring lower Topanga Canyon 10 years ago. But the economy was not as favorable then as it is now. "She's had her heart based in the Santa Monica Mountains for quite some time," said Stump. "It's been 10 years of keeping channels open."

At press time, an appraisal on the property was expected any day. Stump said the ALC pays fair market value for its acquisitions and will be engaging as many different funding agencies as possible, including California State Parks, the National Parks Service, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the California Coastal Conservancy.

Also, Governor Gray Davis recently designated $40 million for state parks from Proposition 12 in his May revision to the state budget.

"We're excited at that potential," said Stump.

LAACCO Ltd., which includes the Los Angeles Athletic Club among its partners, acquired lower Topanga in the 1920s and once planned to build a marina there. But times have changed.

"They want to sell the property," said Stump. "They're giving us the opportunity to make this happen. They want to see it become a state park."

Stump said that he is hopeful the purchase will be completed by December. The option expires in March 2001. LAACCO's evaluation of the property is reportedly $65 million.


A key concern in moving forward with the purchase, Stump said, is the residents currently living in the 49 rental homes in the lower Canyon. Most of the homes have "ancient" septic systems in the floodplain of Topanga Creek, said Stump, which would be at odds with a restoration of the estuary.
"We're trying to come up with a solution that works for everybody," said Stump. "ALC will work closely with LAACCO to come up with a plan on this."

Stump said ALC has hired experts to explore ideas for relocation proposals and is committed to finding a creative solution.

"Either way the residents are facing issues," said Stump, because LAACCO is seeking to get the value of its property, and a commercial redevelopment plan would be worse for them: "We think we can help them in a very fair way."

Rents on these homes, Stump noted, are at the full market rate, so loss of the homes would not be a loss of affordable housing. Since 1990, 61 homes have been removed as they fell into disrepair or as a result of flood damage.

Stump said that the businesses of lower Topanga are viewed as an asset, providing services to the area's future visitors. "The whole thing is really an amazing opportunity," said Stump. And far from its dream-like beginnings, he says, "It's been a lot of long hard work."

The ALC has acted as facilitator for $260 million in difficult property acquisitions and restoration projects in California--including the Bolsa Chica Wetlands and Limekiln Canyon State Park in Big Sur--as well as in other states, that would not have been accomplished otherwise, according to Stump.

The ALC also has an option to buy the long-sought Avatar property off Dirt Mulholland, and is in negotiations on two other properties in the Santa Monica Mountains.


Next Year Galef Institute Brings New Tools, Rules to our School

By Michele Johnson

No one disputes that Topanga Elementary School is one of the best in California--according to its test scores, it's been ranked that way for years. But as Principal Eileen Goodman puts it, test scores and more seem to have hit a "glass ceiling." Some parents and teachers have said they see the need for a more progressive teaching style at the school to break through that ceiling. For that reason, next year Topanga Elementary will become part of a grand experiment. The school has been chosen by the Galef Institute, a nonprofit educational organization, to be the subject of an innovative program called "Different Ways of Knowing." It will be arts-based, and feature "thematically integrated instruction across disciplines, active student participation, early intervention and parent participation in the classroom and at home. . . "

For the full story see the newsstand edition of the Messenger


Head-On Collision

By Tony Morris

Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedics from Station 88 and firefighters from Station 70 responded to a head-on collision at Topanga Canyon Boulevard near Brookside Drive on Friday, May 19 at 4 p.m. According to Station 88 paramedic Rob Nowaczyk, both accident victims sustained major injuries and were airlifted to the UCLA Medical Center by Los Angeles County Fire Department air ambulance.

California Highway Patrol officer Langford reported that a 17-year-old male driver from Malibu, driving southbound on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, fell asleep and crossed over the double yellow median, striking a northbound vehicle driven by a 54-year-old male from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
A UCLA Emergency Room spokesman would not provide any details regarding the condition of the victims. The CHP report noted that the Malibu youth "sustained major injuries due, in part, to the fact that he was not wearing his seat belt."



Mountains Education Program

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has announced Board approval to renew the Mountains Education Program for Fiscal Year 2000-2001. The program provides transportation for community centers, seniors, schools, and family and church groups to the Santa Monica Mountains and Rim of the Valley parklands.

Yaroslavsky said that the program, operational since 1988, helps transport groups of residents from unincorporated areas of the County who would otherwise not have access to the recreational areas of the Santa Monica Mountains.

The cost of the Mountains Education Program will be shared among the five Supervisorial districts and financed with the "local return" portion of Proposition A half-cent sales tax funds. Estimated cost for the Third Supervisorial District is $1,100. Service will continue to be provided by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. For additional information, call Temescal Gateway Park at (310) 454-1395, and choose option 6.