Huge Lower Canyon Park Hearing
Dozens Speak at Standing-Room-Only Event
By Michele Johnson
On Monday, July 7, over 150 people filled Topanga Elementary Auditorium to hear and be heard by the bigwigs of California State Parks. The issue at hand was the last really big park acquisition possible in Topanga--1,659 acres, owned by the Los Angeles Athletic Club (LAACO, Ltd.) corporation since the 1920s, that stretches from the S-curves on Topanga Canyon Boulevard to the ocean. Combined with existing parkland, the acquisition would extend the wildlife corridor and provide permanent hiking access for the first time from the San Fernando Valley to the ocean.
PHOTO BY KATIE DALSEMER
The vast majority of the 72 people who spoke agreed about two things--that the purchase of the park should go forward, and that as it does, the commercial and residential tenants now living on the land should be treated fairly.
PHOTO BY CY BERLENZ
Some speakers protested the acquisition, charging that the land might see too much use, that State Parks has proven to be a poor manager, that the money could be better spent on other threatened lands, that the residents should stay. But most seemed to see the park as a done deal, and seemed relieved that State Parks would acquire it at what many saw as a fair price before developers inevitably do.
Lower Canyon tenants were there in force to make their voices heard. They had met with State Parks privately at a meeting on June 28 to discuss relocation. No definite timetable for their departure was set, but Parks did allow that there might be some room in the 12-month deadline originally set. Though the price for relocation has also not been nailed down, tenants could receive $50,000 or more for a down payment on a home or to factor into rent payments over 42 months.
PHOTO BY TONY MORRIS
The huge crowd applauds a speaker led by actor John Savage (standing center).
At a break, Rusty Areias, State Parks Director, talked with some of the tenants. One of them, who called herself Moonstar, told him they needed more time to relocate. "What about three years?" she asked.
Areias answered, "That's not a lot of time." But then he backed off a bit, saying State Parks was leery of giving too much time, because they had been burned before. Once before, State Parks and tenants in Crystal Cove, a coastal area north of Los Angeles bought for parkland, had "the same discussion," Areias said, "and 30 years later. . .
"We've been through this and we've been screwed over. . . .State Parks doesn't want to go that route again." As far as the money goes, he commented, "If you look at relocation assistance, there's a considerable amount of money. It's pretty generous."
Environmentalists from all over were at the hearing to cheer on the acquisition, and many rank and file Topangans spoke up on all sides of the issue. Tempers were restrained, and all the issues had a thorough airing during the evening, which stretched from 7:00 to 11:00 p.m.
SETTING THE STAGE
The ground rules were announced by Warren Westrup, head of Acquisitions for State Parks. This was the first public hearing, the first of a series of meetings. The planned use of the parkland was not under discussion, but only the acquisition itself. The use issue would be reserved for later meetings. A verbatim transcript of the remarks would be sent to the State legislature.
In his introduction, Westrup, his white hair flowing and shirt sleeves rolled, emphatically laid out the reasons State Parks is interested in this land. Since the 1,659 acres are within an hour's driving distance of 11 million people, he said, it was "pretty apparent why it would be desirable" to buy the land both "to preserve an important habitat linkage and for an important public recreation linkage." It's also home, he added, to "a host of endangered species," and as the third largest creek draining into Santa Monica Bay, "the water quality issues are important."
The State Department of General Services, an independent arm of the government, approved the $43 million asking price, he said. Westrup defended the price, saying that compared to recent park acquisitions, like the Cornfield land downtown--32 acres acquired for $30 million--the price per acre here "seems like a pretty good deal."
As he concluded, the speakers began. Many expressed no reservations, but only joy about the new park. Environmentalists from agencies and volunteer organizations made it clear that this is not just a Topanga issue.
Santa Monica Conservancy director Joe Edmiston, in full ranger regalia, gave an emotional speech applauding the park. He also pledged $2 million of Conservancy money "for improvements of this park if we can do it in a reasonable amount of time."
Joe Edmonson of the Southern California Citizen Advisory Commission on Salmon and Steelhead said that he spoke for 2,500 members in asking for the park to preserve the home "to the rarest fish--maybe on the planet. There are more condors than steelhead."
Arthur Eck, Superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, gave his support to the park "without any qualification."
Marianne Webster, Chair of the Santa Monica Mountains Task Force of the Sierra Club affirmed, "The Sierra Club strongly supports acquisition." After enumerating the benefits of the park, she concluded, "We do feel the pain of the 49 families. . .but we also feel the pain of the park-poor people of L.A."
Representatives of the Audubon Society, the Santa Monica Mountains Trust, Santa Monica Baykeeper and Trout Unlimited also expressed full support for the acquisition.
Many Topangans spoke for the park, too. Ken Wheeland is for the acquisition "mainly to restore the wetlands," he said. "The reason the tenants would have to leave--not right away, I don't think--is that big dikes now interfere with the natural floodplain." But his advice to State Parks was not to allow heavy use, but to make it "a natural preserve."
Herbert Petermann, chair of the VOICE, the Viewridge Homeowners Association, called the park "a great addition. . .You will be able to hike or bike all the way from upper Topanga to the sea. . .Future generations will thank us for this effort."
Ken Widen, a former tenant of Lower Canyon, believes "the State should definitely buy the property. That's a no-brainer." Noel Rhodes, local musician and teacher said, "My concern is the well-being of the creek, the wildlife there. Whatever we do, that's what we have to keep in mind."
Finally, local realtor Chryssa Lightheart issued a warning. She said again and again she'd seen land that she'd been told would "never be built on. . .and they have found a way to do it." She went on with a chilling appraisal. "We're selling 5,000 square feet of land for $100,000," whether the land is "straight up or straight down."
Real estate has gone up eight percent in the year 2001, she added. Afraid that LAACO "will get wind of it" and ask for more money, she concluded, "I'm for the acquisition of this park on a fast track."
ANSWERING TROUT DOUBT
In answer to some who expressed doubt that there are steelhead trout in Topanga Creek, David Gottlieb, board member of the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCDSMM) and a Topanga resident, announced, "Just this week five adults and 100 fingerlings" were found in the creek, and also announced the recent discovery of the rare tidewater goby. "It's very, very impressive, an amazing blessing for the public."
Topanga potter Delmar Lathers brought scanned photos "of the steelhead that some people think we don't have." RCDSMM board member and Earth Day organizer Woody Hastings has also seen steelheads "as long as my arm" and "dozens of babies" in many treks as he "snorkled the creek." He said that even in the drought years between 1985 and 1990 he saw standing pools of water year-round that could support the rare species.
THE TENANTS SPEAK
So many members of the 49 families of tenants came to the hearing that when one speaker asked for a tenant show of hands late in the evening after many people had drifted off, 30 or 40 hands shot up. The leaders of the group, including Bernt Capra, Scott Dittrich and attorney for the group Frank Angel, all spoke. Only one business owner came to the mic--David Haid of Oasis, a unique furniture store that sublets land from Topanga Feed Bin. Haid drew laughs when he remarked that Marty Morehart, owner of Topanga Feed Bin, would have been there, except "his cow got out."
PHOTOS BY TONY MORRIS
Among the heavyweights: left, Frank Angel, attorney for Lower Canyon tenants, right, Warren Westrup, head of Acquisitions, State Parks.
Some of the tenants said they supported the acquisition, though others expressed doubts that the State would protect and love the land as much as they had. The most thunderous applause of the evening was reserved for tenants and tenant advocates.
Scott Dittrich, a tenant leader who has lived in Lower Canyon since 1972 forthrightly said, "I cannot support the acquisition as it is currently written," because it "forced relocation on the backs of 49 families and 10 businesses. These are people who have been stewards of the land and should be allowed to stay," at least until a plan is in place. He pointed out that there "has never been a test of the septic systems. When tenants suggested testing, their suggestions were ignored."
Bernt Capra, another tenant leader, protested the "unjust, impractical and probably even illegal hardship" being forced on the tenants. "Why get rid of us in such a hurry?" he asked. He said when State Parks came close to buying the land 25 years ago, they'd laid out a five-year relocation plan," which makes "a lot more sense than the six to nine months they're going to give us now."
He concluded eloquently that the residents had "made a choice in life. Every city should have a place for people who want to live an alternative lifestyle. They should be supported and cherished and not fought."
Bernt's son Lucas spoke up, too, protesting that the State is not to be trusted, because they have not come up with a use plan, and "have not said they won't build on the land." Later, in his closing remarks, Rusty Areias stepped up, saying firmly, "Lucas, we're not going to manufacture houses there."
Attorney Frank Angel, who represents many of the tenants, insisted, "The question is not should there be a parkland acquisition. The big question is at what price must it come in human terms and in cost to the taxpayer?" He doubts the State has been given an accurate appraisal on Lower Canyon land. But "this being said, as a friend, I hope we can work on creative solutions.
"We have to provide for a model here where all stakeholders walk away satisfied." He said the tenants want to be allowed to stay "until a park plan is made," not have their "houses boarded up" while the process drags on for years.
Many other tenants came to the microphone, pleading their cause. Resident Carol Winter said, though she "clearly supports public access," she doesn't understand, "along with 10,000 who have signed a petition, why should inclusion of one mean exclusion of the other." Another tenant, whose mother is being forced to move, feels the land sale is inevitable and "would rather have the State take over." But, she added, "I wish there was a way you could consider the option of co-existence."
Tenant Derrick Von Driesen, a hiker, biker and surfer who has donated time to patrol and maintain trails, is "most emphatic" in agreeing that State Parks should buy the land, but protests, "We are not polluters." He expects the State "to live up to the spirit of the law, to avoid hardship. . .The State can act fairly, equitably and compassionately toward people who have served the land well." Extending leases, he finished "will ease the hardship."
David Haid said he serves the community well with Oasis and employs 40 people in his store and his factory downtown. "What I'm asking for is time for me and my neighbors below me. The time I'm asking for is not a year. Let's get off the fast track and breathe, slow down."
The Hayworths, a couple who have lived in Lower Canyon 41 years, run their consulting and healing business out of their home. Mrs Hayworth said, "My daughter was born in our house, my mother died in our house." Mr. Hayworth decried the traffic and parking lots a park would bring, and called hiking there "not practical." He passionately denied that the State "can love this land more than we can."
Fred Zepeda, Vice President of LAACO Ltd. gave LAACO's view of the purchase. "We see it as a win-win-win situation." The first winners, he pointed out, are the 63 million Californians who voted for Prop 12. The second winner is LAACO. "We're going to make some money. We deserve some money." The third winners are the tenants, who will be fairly treated, he insisted.
He warned that the land could be developed to some extent. "I continue to get calls from developers who are interested in the property. . . .If the State sale does not happen," he warned, "a developer will show up."
SPEAKING UP FOR THE TENANTS
Carol Leecock of the Temescal Canyon Association spoke in support of the acquisition, but also expressed hope that there is some way to make the businesses concessionaires for the new park, an idea which is still on the table. Delmar Lathers agreed, "I hope they can find some compromise."
Jim Kenny, who introduced himself as a board member of the Temescal Canyon Association and the nature photographer who illustrated Milt McAuley's book on wildflowers in the Santa Monica Mountains called himself "wildly enthusiastic about this purchase." But he also said, "My sympathies also rest with all the tenants--both residential and commercial. . . .I'm sympathetic to the idea that they should be given time."
Wade Major of Malibu spoke eloquently against any relocation. "These people have a natural habitat as well," he argued. And, he added, "If this was Broad Beach Road, we wouldn't be talking relocation." He said the land was in good hands "with people who know how to take care of it. You have an opportunity to do something creative here. You can be bureaucrats or you can set a precedent for the rest of the country." Children, he said, shouldn't just "visit steelhead trout, they should learn how to live with steelhead trout."
Roger Pugliese, head of Topanga Association for a Scenic Community (TASC), pressed for more time. "I would like to see the stewards of the land stay there as long as possible--three to five years--until a plan is in place. What plan is important to TASC. It will be looked at very carefully by all of Topanga."
A very vocal minority had major objections to the park and displacement of the tenants. Walter Beach called for the tenants to be allowed to stay permanently. He suggested running a channel to allow the steelheads to pass. "I won't vote for Gray Davis. Shame on him and all Democrats who support eviction!"
Jack Allen of Pacific Palisades is one of those who believe the money would be better spent to try to acquire land really threatened by development, like Soka University or Ahmanson Ranch. "We could get much more bang for the buck." [Neither Ahmanson or Soka owners are willing sellers, though, and using eminent domain to acquire land is not an option with Prop 12 funds.] Allen questioned whether State Parks even has the resources now to take care of the parks it already owns. He also would like to see some of the properties "landmarked as historic buildings," including "probably the last '30s motel structure" [the Topanga Ranch Motel].
Topangan David Totheroh, who is active in TASC, worries about the lack of a plan. "We're being asked to approve an acquisition when we don't know what the final plan is for that acquisition. Without a plan to evaluate, it's like signing a blank check."
ChoQuosh, a Topangan descended from the Chumash, believes, "That area is sacred ground," and if "hundreds of thousands of visitors" are encouraged to come and parking lots are laid out, the area would be disturbed more than it is by the residents.
Another Native American, Lloyd, a Dakota, also claimed the area is sacred and insisted that if it remains in private hands, "less people would be disturbing these places." With humor, he pointed out, "We were the first ones relocated. We fought to keep our land." But he came up with a solution. "Up the price! Give'em $100,000 tax free, and they'll move!"
Sue Nelson of the Friends of the Santa Monica Mountains, who fought hard to defeat the planned Topanga development at Summit Valley in the
'80s, doesn't trust the State Parks. "Two or three years ago, they tried to unload State beaches to County concessionaires. It was a special interest deal from day one." She added, "I think people should have 30-year leases."
A WORD FROM THE DIRECTOR
As the last speaker finished, State Parks Director Rusty Areias, an amiable man one Topangan was heard to say is "hard not to like," stood for a few closing remarks. "I'm always impressed by your community. One thing you have no shortage of is passion."
He said no plan is in place because of another lesson learned from Crystal Cove. In that case, which took place within the environmentally unfriendly Wilson administration, State Parks went into the acquisition with a plan "that the community didn't want," that included a resort on the land. After much ado, the plan was scuttled, and State Parks got a black eye. State Parks learned that the public must be consulted every step of the way.
In this case, he said, they will develop an interim plan and later a long-term plan only after a series of public meetings. "Hopefully, consensus will come that we can all embrace."
Areias said Governor Gray Davis is a strong supporter of the parks and a big believer in bringing "equity to the system and parks in proximity to where people live." Los Angeles, he said, "is underrepresented." There is less parkland per 1,000 people in L.A. than in any other metro area except Miami. We must seize the opportunity and purchase the land, he said passionately, before we are once again faced with "an uncaring governor and an unforgiving economy. Parks are not a luxury for good times, they're a necessity for all times."
Setting it Straight
In the article "Topanga Lagoon Study Underway" in the July 12 issue of the Messenger, we incorrectly stated that phone lines on Mulholland Boulevard will be placed underground as Los Angeles County's next priority when its now depleted funding mechanism for that purpose are built up again. Instead, Susan Nissman, Senior Field Deputy for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, states that the next priority location for underground lines has been identified as part of Old Topanga Canyon Road in Topanga. The exact location and timing are still to be determined.
Beating Blackouts in Topanga
By Sarah Margolis
Parts of Observation, Grand View and the Medley areas of Topanga will not be subjected to rotating outages, Edison's temporary solution to the California energy crisis, because this area is on a circuit providing power to a "critical customer." Although Edison said the identity of the critical customer was confidential, they reported that the customer could be anything to do with public welfare--from Fire Station 69 to a central sewage line to a governmental use situation.
A rotating outage group is a geographical area that can safely have power shut off for approximately one hour. These rotating outages take some of the load off beleaguered energy plants as a particularly high load could lead to uncontrolled large-scale outages. Stage 2 Emergencies are warnings that there might be a Stage 3 Emergency, in a Stage 3 Emergency rotating outages are occurring. Before any power cut, Edison must give a ten-minute warning with immediate media coverage. After an area is subjected to an outage, they are put back into a queue that must go all the way to the end and start again at the beginning before that area can experience another outage.
The queue is currently at positions in the low 30s, and the first blackout in Topanga would occur to group A036 which is approximately Topanga Canyon Boulevard. A043, consisting of major parts of Fernwood and some of the Post Office Tract, would be next. The other two areas of Topanga are A055, which mostly covers the area north of Entrada, and A068, the Old Topanga Canyon area. To find out whether or not you are in the lucky exempted area or one of the others, look at the top of your electricity bill to see which Rotating Outage Group you are in, or go to www.sce.com to see detailed maps of the different groups and graphs of current and predicted energy load--all groups in the "N" series are exempted throughout the state.
Edison estimates that after an initial outage an area probably has to wait for 200 to 300 hours before the next interruption, depending on weather conditions and conservation efforts. In a worst case scenario, customers might be interrupted two or three times over the course of this summer, so impact should be minimal. As this summer has been unusually cool and people have been conserving energy, there has not been much need for Edison to go into Stage 3 Emergencies.
CNN Covers Fire in the Canyon
PHOTO BY DAVID LICHTEN
CNN correspondent Thelma Gutierrez interviews Tony Morris about his work stumping for the SuperScooper.
A Cable News Network crew visited Topanga in early July for the production of an in-depth segment on the Citizens For Aerial Fire Protection's video project aimed at bringing CL-415 SuperScoopers to Los Angeles County on a permanent basis and the efforts of Arson Watch volunteers to prevent wildfires in Topanga. Los Angeles based CNN correspondent Thelma Gutierrez and her crew travelled with Arson Watch volunteer David Lichten as he drove his route in the Saddle Peak area.
Gutierrez then interviewed CFAFP video director/editor Tom Mitchell and producer Tony Morris at a Saddle Peak location which provided a panoramic view of Topanga, the State Park and Palisades Highlands. Also interviewed for the CNN in-depth segment was Friends of the Arson Watch director, Allen Emerson, and Café Mimosa proprietor Arlette Parker.
CNN producer Veronica MacGregor said that the completed segment was scheduled to run on July 23. With fire danger at a high level, as summer progresses and vegetation dries out throughout the hillsides and canyons of the County, the CNN segment will be broadcast at a time when fire agencies in the County and throughout the Western states are on high alert for wildfires.