Relocation Plan on Fast Track

By Susan Chasen

Recent meetings on relocating tenants of Lower Topanga Canyon to clear the way for a major parkland acquisition were, not surprisingly, almost a complete washout since the majority of those affected are opposed to such a move and didn't show up.

VOL.25 NO. 10
May 17 - 30, 2001


Only two business owners and five residential tenants attended the three meetings hosted by Long Beach-based Pacific Relocation Consultants (PRC) at the Topanga Community House April 25 through 27.

Photos by Anthony P. Verebes

Some of the faces of those to be displaced, left to right, Stella Varnum, Katie Wood and George Wood.

Representatives of the company said they were disappointed at the turnout, but, for the few who did come, they proceeded with their relocation presentation.

"If people are not willing to talk to us, we're going to still write a relocation plan," said Barry McDaniel, PRC vice president.

He assured tenants that his company has a good track record and will do everything it can to help them find new homes and business sites.

"We are going to be there hand-holding you through this process," said McDaniel. "Moving on your own can be a horrendous thing....We pride ourselves on being very caring people."

American Land Conservancy (ALC) president Harriet Burgess was also on hand to answer questions about her organization's role in acquiring the 1,659-acre property for an eventual extension of Topanga State Park.

American Land Conservancy's Jeff Stumpf addresses the tiny group of Rodeo Grounds residents who showed up for relocation meeting.

Roger Pugliese and David Totheroh of TASC (Topanga Association for a Scenic Community), and Laura Shell, planning deputy for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, also attended the meetings.

The few tenants who did attend said they found the meetings informative, but they were far from optimistic about prospects for finding anything comparable to their current situation.

"This imminent purchase by the Conservancy will be an especially difficult loss because we are elderly now," said Katie Wood. "Our roots here go deep and we have loved living and raising our children here."

According to Wood, the house she has shared with her husband George since 1964 was moved from the beach to its present location at 3427 South Topanga Canyon Boulevard in 1932 and is one of the oldest in Malibu.

The Woods and another elderly longtime resident, Stella Varnum, were among the five of 49 households represented at the April 25 meeting.

Like several other Lower Topanga tenants, the Woods originally bought their house and leased the land. But in 1973, the landowner, the Los Angeles Athletic Club, gave them the choice of removing the house or turning over ownership to the club, so they signed it over without compensation and continued renting.

The owner of the property is now LAACO Ltd., which includes the Los Angeles Athletic Club among its subsidiaries. LAACO has agreed to sell the property for $43 million to the American Land Conservancy which, in turn, intends to transfer it to State Parks. The sale is supposed to close on July 14.

ALC president Harriet Burgess, who became acquainted with Topanga during her 14 years working for the Trust for Public Land, said her organization generally takes on high-risk, complicated projects--sometimes involving enormously intricate land exchanges between developers and public agencies. Locally, she cited the Vista Pacifica project in Los Angeles, which involved complicated environmental concerns over abandoned oil wells on the site.

"We work on a pretty slim margin," said Burgess. Payment for ALC services, she explained, comes from the seller discounting the price as a charitable contribution.

In this instance, Burgess said the ALC has made a substantial investment in optioning and appraising the property and now in hiring a relocation company to facilitate acquisition of Lower Topanga for parkland.

"We really spent some time investigating relocation companies," said Burgess. "This was not the least expensive. These guys were at the top of the list."

Asked by a tenant whether a compromise was possible that could include preservation of the community and the businesses as part of the future park, Burgess was resolute.

"It just isn't going to work that way," she said. "This is not my position. This is State Park's position....They don't want to be a landlord. They want open space and natural landscapes for people to enjoy."

She said State Parks will not buy the property without a relocation plan.

Although ALC's position is that the tenants will have to be removed by the end of the year, State Parks first must adopt the plan and ultimately will be responsible for a decision to implement it.

These meetings were held only a week after tenants received letters stating that they "will" be relocated. The letters came despite previous assurances from the landlord that plans for the future park would determine the extent of relocations required.

In light of the fact that no public agency has yet authorized relocation, McDaniel acknowledged that perhaps the letter was too strongly worded.

When asked about phasing tenants out over time, McDaniel said if it becomes necessary it might be considered.

"At this point, we haven't considered phasing," he said.

A key objective of the plan, according to McDaniel, is to establish a relocation budget based on the particular needs and circumstances of each individual tenant. He predicted the plan will take 60 to 90 days to complete. Then tenants will have 30 days for review and comment before it can be implemented.


Pacific Relocation consultant David Richman estimated relocation will cost a minimum of $4 million, possibly significantly more. Currently, the state Department of Parks and Recreation has $40 million budgeted for the acquisition--$3 million short of the $43 million LAACO is seeking for the property, not including relocation expenses. At this point, ALC is seeking additional funding sources for the project.

At the meeting, residential tenants were told their benefits would include moving costs, 42 months of financial assistance to cover higher rents in a new location or the equivalent in a lump sum toward a down payment on a house, and other services such as filing benefits claims.

The relocation consultants also promise to help find comparable housing. But the legal definition of "comparable" doesn't include aesthetic values such as "scenic vistas or proximity to the ocean...or other natural phenomena" and most residents don't expect desirable options to emerge from this process.

Instead, "comparable" housing in this case may serve only as a basis for calculating rental assistance levels, rather than as a genuine relocation choice.

At both the business and resident meetings, held on separate nights, McDaniel and Richman urged the tenants to think creatively about their options for relocation, to even see it as an opportunity to make changes in their lives.

"Here's an opportunity to make that change and have someone help you with that process," said Richman. "Some use it as an opportunity to buy a home."

Others, he said, move closer to family members, to retirement communities or to resort areas. Business-owners might make changes that actually improve the business, he suggested.

"You can do a lot of thinking and hopefully find the perfect place for your business," Richman said. However, he added that it's time to get going since there's only eight months before the relocation is supposed to be completed. Ultimately, he said, everyone will be given 90-day notices.


Assistance for businesses include moving costs, up to a year of equipment storage, new signage and stationery, compensation for items not being moved, 24-month's payment of rent differential, and help with permitting, loans and claims paperwork. Business owners seeking to retire or pursue new business ventures can receive fixed payments up to $20,000. Those who do make a move but are not as successful at the new site can seek compensation under "loss of business goodwill" provisions.

"They're going to think we're partners in it," McDaniel said of his company's commitment to helping the businesses. "Some say 'I don't need your assistance, just show me the money' basically. But some don't have the time or experience or drive to pull it all together."

Of the two businesses that showed up, one familiar owner wished to remain anonymous. The other, Lynn Adams of Puppy Pals, is one of few who has been preparing for relocation, which is theoretically possible in her case--or so she thought.

"I've been looking since August very diligently," said Adams. "I have a huge zoning problem."

According to Adams, who has met with PRC again since the April 26 meeting, there's not much they can do for her. Their approach, she said, was "when you close down your business," this is how you will be compensated.

Adams' doggie day-care service is not allowed in residential or light agricultural zones. When Adams learned in a letter from LAACO in August about the parkland deal, she sold her home to enable her to buy a property for her business. But she can't find the zoning anywhere, even if she's willing to abandon her current client base in the Palisades and Brentwood and try to start over farther away.

"I need help," said Adams. "But I don't think they can help me....I'm hitting a legal issue that looks to me to be insurmountable."

According to Adams, County officials say she will not be able to get a zone change or a conditional use permit.

Adams' business began as a dog hiking business in 1995. When she decided she needed a home base for the dogs, she eventually found LAACO which agreed to lease a 1.5 acre site to her off Topanga Canyon Boulevard at West Brookside. For about four years now she has maintained a low-profile business with "loads of leash-free outdoor fun" for doggies, three to five hours daily, five days a week.

"We poop-scoop diligently," said Adams, in case anyone is worried about environmental impacts from her business. "We start the day with 20 bags in our pocket."

She has four specially-equipped vans for pick-up and return of her clients' "peaceful, contented fur children."

"The clients love it," said Adams. "We're pretty reasonably priced. We make enough to pay bills and we just enjoy our lives."

One 20-acre property Adams is considering in a remote area in Malibu, she explains, is a "huge risk" because she doesn't know if the neighbors will object. She will lose it if she doesn't make an offer soon. In any case, it will mean starting her business over because it's too far for her current clients.

LAACO spokeswoman Julie Benson said another meeting is being scheduled for tenants who were not able to attend the others. Tenants' earlier efforts to reschedule so their attorney could be present were initially rejected. But if their attorney can attend this time, they say they will turn out.


Sellers Host Wine Tasting Party


In a novel twist, sellers Paula and Kevin Jussila (left) serve their wine to realtors Randy Forbes and Jon Saver and a host of friends and would-be buyers.

By Michele Johnson

Topanga real estate is movin' on up, and to celebrate the listing of their home, Kevin and Paula Jussila, threw a wine-tasting party on a cool Wednesday evening, April 4. Kevin, though a stockbroker by trade, built the 5,000-square-foot home together with his contractor-father from 1989 to 1991, finishing just in time to bring his bride home.

"I had my tool belt on the day of the wedding," confirms Kevin. He was all lean blond intensity as he explained, "I grew up swinging a hammer." All that hard work evidently paid off. The five-bedroom, five-and-a-half-bath house, built on two-and-a-half acres, is co-listed by Coldwell Banker and Prudential/John Aaroe & Associates for a whopping $2,395,000.

Kevin and Paula received guests on the deck of their home. The house, a sleek modern multi-level located on Greenbluff off Colina, has sweeping views extending from the ocean to the city to their three-quarter-acre vineyard, dormant during this season.

Appropriately, for a home billed on a slick flyer as "Provence in Topanga," the Jussilas served a variety of cheeses and wine made in their own onsite mini-winery at the event. Kevin is a bicyclist who became interested in wine-making by riding the California wine country and traveling through Provence. He considers the South of France "the epitome of a way to live."

The '94 Pinot Noir and '95 Chardonnay poured by Kevin was made in their winery, but from imported grapes. In 1999, though, the Jussilas produced a Syrah, the first wine from their own vineyard. Kevin led the way to his basement winery--a series of rooms for making, aging, bottling and labeling the wine. The Jussilas make six to eight barrels each year and are now licensed to sell, assisted by new County rules passed last fall that give more latitude to boutique wineries. Topanga is dotted with several wineries, all producing on a fairly small scale.

The fruits of the Jussilas labor also include two children-Anna, age six, and Adam, age four. Paula, who works as an independent media planner, is expecting their third child in August.

Though they've loved their Topanga home, their love of wine-making has drawn them away. They plan to build a new house on a large parcel in the hills above Agoura, leaving them 10 to 15 acres for vines. Though "this time," says Kevin, "I'm just going to write the checks and let someone else build it."


Car Doors, Crack Pipes and Crawdads

By Rosi Dagit

On Earth Day a dedicated cadre of volunteers assembled in the cool damp morning at Topanga State Park to make their difference. Some brought their tools to rebuild the fences in the park, but over 50 people divided into teams to clean up Topanga Creek. Each team headed off in search of trash, hoping to find none. Unfortunately, the days work filled a five-ton dumpster graciously donated by G.I. Rubbish!


An amphibian count of the creek turned up a Western toad that "thrilled us with her size."

Yedvart Tchakerian and Steve Williams had the dubious distinction of finding the grossest stuff. Near Cheney Road, a campsite with sodden mattresses and a camper shell had washed down the bank, not to mention a door and assorted beer bottles. They filled a truck load and then came seeking manpower to get the bigger stuff up the steep slope. State Park maintenance workers brought a two-ton truck and together they filled it up.

As if that weren't enough, the dynamic duo came and joined another crew at Greenleaf to pick up after the sloppy homeowners who consistently leave their trashcans along the highway and don't clean up when they are overturned by marauding animals or passing cars. In addition to an old Schwinn bike and lots of trash, a drug lair was discovered, complete with crack pipes and other assorted paraphernalia.

Noel Rhodes and Philip Daughtry led their crew down to the lower parts of the creek, where they were pleased to find only a few car and refrigerator doors amidst the general debris. Then they headed down to Topanga Beach to help Allen Reed and his volunteers from the Surfrider Foundation. Two weeks before Earth Day, an entire meth lab had been dumped onto the creek bank. Fortunately, the toxic wastes did not leach into the creek itself, but the potential for devastation was scary.

Topanga's own Cub scouts, led by Gary Dannenbaum and Eric Schweitzer, picked up bags of trash from near the school and along Old Topanga Creek. All this after a morning building fences! Go Cubbies!

Intrepid leaders Sarah Coatts and Kevin Reed headed to the area behind Topanga Center and found all kinds of stuff. With the help of a great crew from the L.A. Clean And Green Program led by Gabby Gallegos, they retrieved dozens of batteries, removed several encampments and almost two tons of general trash. Their reward was uncovering the first California newt of the day and seeing that it made it safely to a protected spot. This was a welcome change from the feces and used toilet paper left behind by those who hang out behind the market.

Catherine Tirr, Nicholas Cox, Sean Denny and Rosi Dagit hiked along the road and behind Froggy's, finding lots of trash escaped from the open dumpsters. It is evident that most of the trash in the creek wouldn't be there if people took better care of their trash cans! The ravens and other critters are expert scavengers who wreak havoc when given the slightest chance. Much of the problem could be solved by securing lids to trash cans so that the critters can't get in. All areas with dumpsters or trash depots, especially behind the restaurants, were a mess. It was pretty disappointing, especially in light of the two tons of debris removed last September along with the cars.


So how does all this trash impact the water quality of the creek? The watershed-wide study of 15 locations in the watershed since July 1999 has a pretty clear story to tell. Each month the stalwart Stream Team Volunteers spend a Saturday morning exploring the creek and collecting data. Dona Christiansen, Kevin and Gerlinda Gautry, Julie Rosa and Penny Ward have been the core crew for the past two years. Many thanks to them for showing their concern and offering their help. The Watershed Committee has been reviewing the data, and decided that more education is clearly needed. Do you contribute to the solution, or are you a part of the problem?

The good news is that overall the creek is still able to deal with the loads of manure, graywater, septic bacteria, motor oil, detergents and other stuff that we spill into it all the time. The monitoring station at the bridge only two miles upstream from Topanga Beach is consistently good, and only exceeds water quality standards immediately following a big rain.

The bad news is that there are several locations in the upper watershed that consistently have high fecal coliform bacteria counts and show evidence of graywater impacts with higher than normal levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. This is the same water our kids wade in to find tadpoles and the creek critters depend on for their life. If the levels of nitrogen get too high, the frogs will die. Sample sites that collect all the runoff from Glen View and the Fernwood area show some real problems. These are two of the most populated areas of the watershed, and the small side creeks run steeply down the hills to join the main creek. There is little time or sufficient creekside vegetation to perform the natural cleansing processes. These parts of the system have exceeded the capacity of the creek to break down and filter the problems before passing them downstream.

The other big problem area is behind Topanga Center, where defecation directly into the creek or along the banks is consistent. The Port o' Potty provided by the Town Council is over by the Post Office and is seriously under-utilized. Even the big chainlink fence installed around the parking lot to help keep people out has failed to stop the problem. Other sub-drainages of the Canyon, like Old Topanga, Highvale, Cheney, etc., have intermittent problems as well.

It is time to take stock. Water quality regulations for septic systems are getting tougher and tougher. This problem is solvable, but each and every property owner needs to do their best to reduce the impacts. Together, using common sense and some simple techniques, we can make the creek a safe place for our kids and dogs to romp.

To find out some ways to make a difference, come to the Watershed Committee meeting on Thursday, May 24, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Top O' Topanga Mobile Home Estates Library. There will be a panel of septic and graywater experts, from local plumbers to sophisticated system installers, to answer your questions. It is critical that the community be proactive in solving these issues, before the regulators get a chance to tell us how to do it. Topanga creativity needs to go into action!


So how bad is it really? Can the creek still support the diversity of critters that we hope it can? To find out, a team of Topanga volunteers, including Noel and Aylee Rhodes, Steve Williams, Jennifer Shelstead, Ken Widen, Melissa Johnson and Delmar Lathers, joined National Park Service biologist Gary Busteed to survey the creek. The National Park Service is coordinating an effort to examine all 36 main creeks within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area to see if they still support the same number of reptile and amphibian species as they did when surveyed in 1986 by the Southwest Herpetological Society. Working with Rosi Dagit at the RCDSMM, three locations within Topanga Creek were included, both this year and last.

It was great! Tons of tadpoles made us careful where we put our feet! Mating newts twisted and turned in their amorous clusters. Rare California tree frogs kept leaping up to see if they could get a kiss from Aylee and be turned into princes! Egg masses cluttered willow roots. A huge Western toad thrilled us with her size and prodigious ability to lay threads of eggs over 20 feet long.

It was a riot of life, until we got to the survey site in the main creek between Greenleaf Road and Highvale. The situation here is dramatically different, with voracious mosquito fish, globs of green bug larvae, floating islands of algae and the worst possible find, crayfish! Crayfish get introduced by misguided fishermen who can't find a use for them as bait. Once entrenched, they can be unstoppable. They can destroy every frog and newt in the creek with their incredible appetites for anything alive. It is not clear why we found them in the upper watershed, but not the lower. Dr. Lee Kats at Pepperdine University is studying the impacts of crayfish on the native amphibians. "Once these exotics are introduced into a creek, they can do irreparable harm," notes Kats. No one knows yet why we are seeing this pattern in Topanga, but we hope that further surveys will give us a clue. Maybe we could sponsor a crawdad catching contest?



Jim Talmadge's 1939 Duesenberg dresses up the grounds of what once was Topanga Beach Auto Court in a photo from those days.

Topanga Ranch Motel: Frozen in Time

By Susan Chasen

It's remarkable how busy with cars the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway along Lower Topanga has been for the last 70 years.

As long ago as 1933, a newspaper report had 53,000 "machines" traveling between Santa Monica and Malibu over a 16-hour period on a holiday weekend.

At that time, PCH was known as the Roosevelt Highway, and even before it officially opened in 1929, the little cottages that are now the Topanga Ranch Motel were there.

In fact, they reputedly were built as lodging quarters for workers on the Roosevelt Highway project, says Ray Craig, who has owned the motel for 15 years.


In a recent photo, little has changed but the name.

"It does have historic significance," said Craig, though it has never been made official.

He says the original cottages didn't have bathrooms or shower facilities and that there are still remnants of communal shower and eating areas.

Now they do have these facilities, but they don't have much more. In many ways they are still as they were over 70 years ago, and that's the way many people like it.

"It attracts a different type of clientele," said Craig of his 30-unit motel. "It's more of a quaint atmosphere....We get a lot of European travelers who are used to, and feel more comfortable in, older buildings."

Also, he said he gets many friends and relatives of Topangans, writers looking for a little peace and quiet, and countless other interesting tenants whose stories--"some good and some bad"--he said, could fill several books.

Craig and his Topanga Ranch Motel are among the 10 businesses and 49 households of Lower Topanga recently notified that they are to be "relocated" as part of the plan to acquire the property for parkland.


Several of the business owners like Craig--and owners of the three restaurants, the old market and the bait shop--see obvious roles they could play in providing uniquely affordable visitor services for a future park.

These, along with the popular Malibu Feed Bin--which also has an important history in the community--and a few others would like to continue operating in a way that preserves this snapshot of California's disappearing coastal culture.

Interestingly, just a little way down the road at the historic 415 Pacific Coast Highway property, formerly Marion Davies' home and then the Sand and Sea Club, the National Parks Service is proposing a new visitor center for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Exhibits at the center are to focus on the evolution of Southern California coastal culture and the history of the PCH.

The Topanga Ranch Motel, like the others, is a surviving example of both.

"We provide a service for the community, and we'd provide a service for the park community as well," said Craig. "There's no reason why it couldn't last many more years."

Craig, now a Thousand Oaks resident, lived for 20 years in Malibu. He still attends the Presbyterian church there and is active as vice president and a 35-year member of the Malibu Optimist Club and a 20-year member and past president of the Chamber of Commerce.

Before buying the motel, he spent many years in the grocery store business managing the old Mayfair and Colony markets. He fell into the motel business after buying the Topanga Ranch Market. The motel came up for sale a year after he acquired the market and he bought it. By the late 1980s, he decided he needed to concentrate on one business, so he sold the market.

"I've grown to appreciate the place for what it is," said Craig. "It's not highly lucrative, but it pays my bills."


"What it is," for many, including one 50-year permanent resident on a fixed income, is not an ordinary motel.

"In less than 30 days I'm going to be 84," said Aneta Siegel, who recalls discouraging her mother and her mother's husband from buying the place many years ago because she didn't want to end up doing all the cleaning.

"I still don't own the place and I never will," said Siegel with regret. "I've survived through at least five or six landlords," said Siegel. "I ought to be declared an historical monument."

If the motel--she recalls when it was the Topanga Beach Auto Court--is closed down for the park purchase, Siegel says she doesn't know what she will do.

"I have difficulty now walking, and I have to use a walker....I can't get around and look for a place to live," said Siegel. "It does have me rather frantic because I'm not a wealthy woman.

"It actually suits me very well because of breathing problems that I have," said Siegel. She explained that she needs to be near the beach or someplace where the daily temperature change is minimized.

"I'm really a delicate little plant," she joked.

Siegel, a World War II veteran who served with the WACs overseas, a photographer and "a fairly good" artist, lives alone but for her many "night visitors," the feral cats, opossums and skunks that have replaced her Sheltie dog she had to put to sleep.

"I've got a fairly good wild family now," said Siegel. "It would be hard. I am in a very fortunate location....I have a beautiful view."


Craig said the Topanga Ranch Motel also has many other regular visitors and tenants who come up in the summer from the desert, or for extended stays in the winter when there is greater availability.

"There is no other place that would be able to offer this kind of housing at these rates and proximity to the ocean," said Craig. "We provide motel facilities for visitors to the community that otherwise couldn't afford to be in the community."

Craig said his rates are seasonal, but are especially in flux now because of power expenses. Generally, he said, the cottages are $75 to $100 a night with weekly and monthly rates of roughly $400 and $1,100 respectively.

The affordability of virtually all the Lower Topanga commercial services owes something to the fact that the property owner, LAACO Ltd., has only granted 30-day leases. It means that rents stay low, but it also means that business owners can't risk costly improvements.

The result is that Lower Topanga has become something of a time capsule. But, on the other hand, it may encourage the assumption that infrastructure--like septic tanks--are not up to standard and could be contributing to periodic water quality problems in the Topanga lagoon.

Craig said he does not believe water quality is a real problem.

"I think the issue of the water quality is something to facilitate the purchase of the property."

According to Craig, the motel's system is well maintained and is serviced weekly.

"If we find a real problem, we'll take care of it."

Water quality concerns and the goal of restoring the lagoon and wetlands have been discussed since the proposed parkland deal was announced over a year ago and are a central justification for relocating tenants. But, lately there have been reports that other sources of contamination from drainage off Pacific Coast Highway and from other commercial and residential uses up the coast may play a significant role.

Also, there has not been any comparison between the current use impacts and those arising from future use of the park such as for a visitor center and related facilities.


Lower Topanga tenants have long questioned whether restoring the lagoon and wetland over areas inland from the PCH will be possible because so much fill dirt was added to the property to build the highway.

In fact, according to a 1933 article in the Los Angeles Times, approximately 800,000 cubic yards of grading and excavating for widening the Roosevelt Highway was dumped into the lagoon because it was cheaper than putting it on a barge and dumping it in the ocean. The decision saved the taxpayers $455,000, the difference between 90 cents and 33 cents per yard.

At the time, the owner of the smallest of the three affected properties who opposed the project accused the state of filling in the undesirable land of the other owners to their benefit. The other owners were William Randolph Hearst interests, which owned the largest portion, and The Los Angeles Athletic Club. Both reportedly agreed to trade the affected property to the state in exchange for the abandoned right of way of the old highway alignment.

Part of the $470,000 road-widening project that extended 3.5 miles east and west of Topanga Creek, also included a new, shorter bridge 170 feet upstream. The old bridge, originally built in 1924 and widened a few years later, was 240 feet long. State highway officials said it would be too costly to rebuild the old bridge because it was too long.

Among the witnesses to the demise of the Topanga lagoon were the tiny cottages of the present Topanga Ranch Motel, seen plainly in old photos of the construction.

At this point, Craig says if he is forced to go, he hopes he will receive enough compensation to acquire another business. However, he said he isn't panicking yet because there is still so much happening, so many decisions being made.

"Hopefully, we'll have some honest people doing honest things as we go along."

As a businessman, Craig might be able to move, but there's no relocation for the Topanga Ranch Motel.

Next issue: Part 3 of Susan Chasen's story on Lower Canyon Businesses.


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