The State of the County:
A Conversation with Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky
By Michele Johnson
Zev Yaroslavsky, who has been County Supervisor of the Third District that includes Topanga since 1994, sat down with the Messenger recently for a frank exchange on many of the issues that resonate within the Canyon. The meeting took place in his offices, a complex at the County administration building in downtown Los Angeles.
"...some of the input the Topanga community has given us. . .(has) been so simple and revolutionary that the Department of Public Works has actually become converted to a new way of thinking. And what started in Topanga has spread to other parts of the County..."
PHOTOS BY KATIE DALSEMER
Neatly dressed in white shirt and tie, he dropped into an easy chair as the interview began, sinking his head in his hands for a moment. The Supervisor seemed exhausted at the end of a long day. But as he spoke, he became re-energized. He obviously loves what he's doing and enjoys airing his views. He was confident enough to say, "I don't know," at certain points, calling in aides Laura Shell and Ginny Kruger to answer specific points.
We covered issues ranging from the new state septic standards that the County must enforce to Topanga's chances for its own County branch library. He was asked if he would run again. He will.
(Questions are in bold.)
I did want to thank you in person for the discretionary funds you gave to the CHIC [Community House Improvement Committee].
It was our pleasure.
I was wondering if...we could ever hope to get more funding by the County?
Well, as I've said to you once before, we'll have to cross that bridge when we get to it. Obviously we would want to be helpful to Topanga in developing the community center--in expanding it, refurbishing it, developing the EOC there--if that's what the study comes back and shows. But first we have to find out how much it's going to cost, and in all likelihood we would want to leverage any County dollars that we put into a project like this, leverage it with state dollars and maybe some private funding as well.
So I'm not going to rule it out for sure. I wouldn't rule it out, but I also think there needs to be incentive for other jurisdictions of government and private sources to come in. We're not going to do it all on our own. And that's the way we've done everything. That's the way we've acquired a lot of parkland and built other public facilities and recreation facilities, even libraries...
I was going to ask you about a library, because I know there's a little movement in Topanga, too, about getting a County library. I was wondering if that's progressed any.
We're anxious to do that, and the state library bond, which was approved by the voters last year, sets up a process by which counties can apply for funds from the bond measure for libraries in the counties. The problem is going to be that the competition is fierce. The amount of money available is limited. The need for libraries far exceeds the amount of money that's available.
So it'll be a competition among communities all over the county. Unincorporated as well as incorporated cities will compete for these monies. The County has not yet established the final rules and parameters of that competition.
Do you think that the fact that we're unincorporated might help our bid?
I hope so. I mean, there are a lot of factors that go into this--one is unincorporated; one is the population of the unincorporated area; one is the accessibility that the unincorporated area has to other library facilities. And I think that's where Topanga really has a disadvantage in terms of library services. It is so isolated, especially for young kids. And so for me getting a library in the Topanga community is a high priority. We'd like to do it. And if we don't do it with the library bond, we'll look for other ways to do it...
Now as far as parks go, there's been a lot of new parkland dedications this year. For example, the Backbone Trail seems pretty much complete...
Brad Sherman has been very key in helping to get funding for the Backbone Trail. It is largely funded....It's a great resource. We're also looking at other trails in the mountains that are even more accessible to lesser athletes like me, who don't want to take on the Backbone Trail but would like to have the mountain experience. There's a coastal trail that we're talking about developing and expanding. We'd like to get some campgrounds in the mountains so that people who do use the Backbone Trail or other trails have a place they can backpack and spend the night.
This is a great resource. The Santa Monica Mountains is a great resource for all of California, especially the southern half of California. And I think the last two years have been spectacular for mountain preservation and environmental protection. We have done more in the last couple of years in the way of acquisition than we did in the prior 10 combined.
Is there still money left in Prop A, the County measure?
There is some, and we're going to use it for acquisitions in the Santa Monica Mountains. We're looking to acquire major properties, large properties that are ecologically sensitive and worth preserving...that are threatened with development. There are quite a few properties that we are looking at. This last year or two we've acquired the so-called Abrams property, the north side of the ridge line on the Ventura Freeway. Several dedications. I've been to a dedication a month for the last four months...
All of them have been important. They're important for the preservation of open space. They're important for the migration of wild animals which still populate our area. But above all, they preserve our open space for future generations....
And when you look at the future of California--the southern half of California from San Luis Obispo to the Mexican border--you can envision a time when there'll be very little open space along that whole coastal plain that connects Mexico to central California with the exception of, perhaps, Camp Pendleton--unless the Marines go elsewhere. And the pressure will mount over the years to sell off that land because it's so valuable. And with the exception of that land, and maybe a couple of other pockets, there will be nothing left except for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. I think we've done a lot.
I use the metaphor a lot, my Thomas Brothers map metaphor. If you look at a Thomas Brothers map of 1975, and you look at the southern California area, you see the parkland is demarcated by dark green on the map. There's very little dark green on the map--the 1975 Thomas Brothers, a copy of which I keep in my drawer just to remind me. You look at today's Thomas Brothers and there's a lot of dark green. We've made huge progress under Congressman Tony Beilenson, and former Councilman Braude, my predecessor Ed Edelman, myself, Brad Sherman, Sheila Kuehl, now Fran Pavley.
I assume you've had contact with the Kerry Lane Protection Group. There's a little piece of property up on Kerry Lane, which is up off on Grand View in Topanga, where the road into it was going to be paved. Now the County has agreed not to do that until they are asked to do that by a developer. I guess under that circumstances you would have to do it. But the people up there are still wondering if that could be keyed in on for acquisition....It borders on the new Lower Canyon park, if that happens, and it also borders on Topanga State Park.
Well, we have a whole system of how we acquire property. I insisted when I came into this office that we have a system based on a rational, almost scientific way of prioritizing the importance of properties for acquisition. And we have a matrix of considerations that have been developed by Joe Edmiston of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and his scientists--Paul Edelman, the animal experts and biologists. The matrix consists of several things, including, but not limited to the threat of development: how important of an ecological resource is it; is it a Significant Ecological Area; are there threatened species--plant or animal--on that property; is it an animal migration route....So we would look at that property as we would look at any other.
How do you feel about the Ahmanson Ranch development?
Ah, it's terrible. We've opposed it. I've opposed it since I was with the City of Los Angeles where we filed a lawsuit against Ahmanson. The County had actually filed a lawsuit against Ahmanson. And we lost the lawsuit, both the City and the County...
In the meantime, since the lawsuits several years ago were lost, the species of plant and animals that were thought to be extinct have popped up. And the red-legged frog and the spineflower that were thought to be extinct actually showed up on the property, and required now a supplemental Environmental Impact Report to the original report. So I do believe, despite the fact that Ahmanson has had very favorable treatment from the County of Ventura--which is where it is, the County of Ventura--that they're having trouble closing the deal, if you will, because it's a very sensitive area. It's the headwaters of Malibu Creek. It threatens not only the water of the creek but of Santa Monica Bay. The traffic implications of this property are horrendous. The only way in and out of this project is through Los Angeles County. No access from that property through Ventura County...
We're going to fight that till our last breath is upon us. It's been my experience you keep fighting and lightning can strike...
And how do you feel about this thing that just happened with SOKA?
I was disappointed at the decision of the Appellate Court. It was a decision that was critical of our process, not of the end result. I thought it was a good deal we struck with SOKA and a very minimal project compared to what they originally wanted....We would have received almost 400 acres dedicated to parkland and two or three hundred acres that would have been placed in permanent conservation easements, so six or seven hundred acres of land that would have been open space for all time in exchange for giving them the right to have 550 students...
And the court ruled that the County did not follow the steps, meticulously follow the steps with the California Environmental Quality Act. Obviously we thought we did, but we'll see where it goes from here...
Along the same lines, the Local Coastal Plan that's being developed, I was wondering what the exact timetable is on that, when it would be completed? And I understand it's going to be even tougher than the Coastal Commission's rules as they've been applying them...
Whatever we do with the Local Coastal Plan will have to be approved by the Coastal Commission. So our objective is to integrate what we want to do with the Coastal Commission.
Well, for instance, I heard if Lower Canyon park were to be developed that they would be able to do more developing it before the Local Coastal Plan would come out rather than after. That's what Fred Zepeda of LAACO said, that if it were to be done today there would probably be more they would be able to develop...
Laura Shell: I think that's accurate. They have a density level at the bottom in particular of about eight units per acre. In our new Santa Monica Mountains North Area Plan, there's no property with that amount of density. And certainly that won't be the County's recommendation to keep that density level....We don't have properties that dense outside of the Coastal Zone, so we're certainly not going to have it inside.
Another thing I was wondering about that I think a lot of Topangans are concerned about are the new rules for septic tanks, the tougher standards that the State is imposing that the County has to implement.
First of all, I was wondering when that implementation is going to take place. And if there's any thought that there might be some sort of recourse for less affluent people living along the creek. If they need to have a major fix on their septics, if there might be any sort of fund envisioned to help them out?
Laura Shell: Susan Nissman has been the most knowledgeable on this. I don't think the discussions are there yet. I think she and the department heads are still working on how it's going to be implemented at all. I know they're looking at ways that alternative systems might be feasible...
Ginny Krueger: [The State was] looking at the feasibility of some grants money, because there are people around the lake--Malibou Lake--who can't add a square inch now in order to enlarge some of those houses or indeed to replace systems...that in order to occupy houses, they would have to replace the systems. So the idea was if the State enacts this new tougher legislation, is the State going to pony up some extra monies for grants.
I asked Sheila Kuehl that, and she said it's very, very tough to get State money for any kind of fund like that. Can we envision any kind of County assistance for any of these homeowners that may have a problem? I know there's a real fear. The realtors say there's a couple of homes at least in Topanga even now with the laws that are unable to be sold because of septic problems.
Ginny K: Right.
And I think there's a huge fear in Topanga that this will only become worse once these new standards go into effect. Do you envision that anything like that could be looked at by the County?
No...I think through the regulations we'll try to accommodate as many of the residents and property owners as possible, but in terms of cash dollars, I don't want to mislead anybody. There's not a pot of money there. There may be some State money. There may be some funds available through state or federal loan programs--I don't know that there are....We would certainly facilitate the dissemination of information to people through our office about that.
I think in general in Topanga, a lot of us are concerned that the low-end people are being forced out one way or another. But also I know that the state has mandated that the County work on an affordable housing plan...I know there's already been a regulation that's loosened up. People can now get CUPs (Conditional Use Permits) to take a legally permitted guest house, and if they go after a CUP, they can bring in a renter...
Would it be possible to think in the future that people could have legal trailers on their properties, if they were permitted? Because right now, I'm sure you know, there's a certain amount of illegal rentals in Topanga, and if it weren't for that there would be a lot of older folks who wouldn't be able to keep their homes and a lot of younger people on the low end who wouldn't be able to continue living in a place like Topanga. So I'm just wondering if there can be some sort of creative thinking along those lines?
We would certainly be interested in talking to the Topanga community on any ideas the leaders of the community and the citizens might have on affordable housing....I appreciate the difficulty that exists there and in other places in Los Angeles rural areas. To most people in Los Angeles County, affordable housing in the Santa Monica Mountains is an oxymoron. When you talk about affordable housing, or even affordability for individual families or individuals, the most marginal tenant in Topanga doesn't begin to compare to a marginal urban dweller in parts of Los Angeles.
I don't know if that's totally true.
It may not be. It may be a generalization. To answer your question correctly, we would be open to ideas that the Topanga community might have, and you always have to be sensitive that there are competing values and competing interests. On the one hand, you have the issue of affordability and sustainability of people who have lived in that community for a long time and are being forced out.
I've seen many of them forced out over the last 20 years.
The last thing we want to see in any community is that people who have called that community home for a long time, through economic factors not of their making--especially senior citizens or disabled or anybody else for that matter--are forced out.
The second thing, yes, about trailers or other things like that, that becomes a competing issue. A lot of the residents--we want to hear from the residents about how do we address that issue. I'm not sure trailers is the way I would do it. I think CUPs for guest houses are controversial enough.
Maybe to make the CUP process easier and less expensive.
That would be nice. Having gone through a similar process myself last year, I had to live by the laws I wrote. It was an experience, let me just say that. But definitely we would be open to the Topanga community on ways to make it easier.
BEACH BUS BUSTED
About transportation, I want to thank you again for funding the Beach Bus again, or helping us get that funded, but I wondered if there's any chance for a year-round shuttle bus service through the Canyon? I know Susan Nissman was talking about the possibility of combining it with a park-and-drive for work purposes, and I was wondering if you have any thoughts about that?
Well, I think to be very honest with you, the ridership on our Beach Bus has been anemic, and it's a marginal project just for the summertime, so I think on today's facts to extend it as a year-round kind of shuttle wouldn't make sense. But we just approved the east-west Valley bus road. It's going to connect Warner Center to North Hollywood to the subway station. I'm looking for ways to fold in Topanga, the Conejo Valley, the Calabasas and Agoura Hills communities into that line to the feeder systems. Especially in the northern part of Topanga, it would make sense where people would hop on a shuttle or bus and then go to the terminus of the east-west bus if they're going to Universal City or Hollywood....The success of the line is predicated on feeder systems...
I wanted to know what your future plans are. Are you going to remain as Supervisor for the foreseeable future?
That's my plan. It's up to my constituents, but I'm going to run for reelection next year. I've enjoyed the experience very much. One of the nicest parts about this job has been representing the Topanga community....The people are great people. To say they are sweet, generous, is an understatement. There is more creative energy in the Topanga community than any other community of comparable size. We love it. The people are real. When they call you, they need you. If they don't need you, they don't call you. They're just plain, simple, real folks who have a sense of values about nature and the nonrenewable assets that we have that is second to none of the entire County.
In fact, some of the input the Topanga community has given us about how to handle things like fire safety, fire prevention, brush clearance as well as channel clearance, have been so simple and revolutionary that the Department of Public Works has actually become converted to a new way of thinking. And what started in Topanga has spread to other parts of the County...
At the Equine Response Team "dedication," left to right, Cassie Fitzgerald, Terry Willahan, Alli Acker, Susan Wiebush, Susan Nissman, Zev, Karen Daneshvari and Erin Leeds.
We have a couple of things your readers might be interested in. We just dedicated an Equine Response Team....This is a unique program in the County and in the country. We have trained volunteers with fires and natural disasters...who are dispatched to work in concert with our Fire Department and Sheriff's Department to rescue horses and other animals...
The second thing is that we've just acquired two Firehawk helicopters that will be a permanent part of our Fire Department. This is in addition to the SuperScoopers, which we are going to lease again for three months. We will have our regular helicopters, our Firehawk helicopters carrying 1,000 gallons each of water and the SuperScooper which carries about 1,800 gallons of water--a real arsenal of aircraft designed to fight fires with pinpoint fire drops....That's something that's very important to me.
I want to say that Topanga--there are some canyons in the Santa Monicas that are overdue for a big brush fire. I don't want to jinx any canyon, but there are canyons that haven't burned for 30 to 35 years. And we've been very fortunate that we haven't had a conflagration that has been destructive of human life and animal life in the last few years. Part of the reason we've been lucky is that we've been prepared. Brush clearance is very important.
Topanga Arson Watch has been really important to us as part of the mosaic of protection of disaster preparedness that we have. It's another model, a national model. When I think of the things that have happened in this County, one of the most significant things in my opinion is T-CEP, the whole emergency preparedness program, and Arson Watch with Allen Emerson. These are heroes. They don't get enough credit for what they've done. And preparedness prevention is really worth a lot. And one of the reasons why Topanga has survived unscathed the last few years is that the community has taken greater care to harden itself as a target for fire. And those communities, those structures that are hardened as a target, tend to survive. And those who are careless and don't clear the brush, are the ones that get burned in a brush fire...
Some people in Topanga have mentioned that sometimes it's the County on their pieces of property here and there around that don't clear their property.
And the State.
And the State. And the federal government.
It's true. I hope the County isn't the culprit, but I do know that state parks and federal parks, they sometimes are lax. As a member of the public service, I feel guilty.
Who should the average Topanga person be picking up the phone to call?
If it's the federal property, if it's National Park property, they should call the National Park Service or Brad Sherman's office. If it's State property, they should call the State Parks or Joe Edmiston's office or their state legislators. If it's County property, they should call me. If they don't want to bother calling all those other offices, you know what? Have'em call our office in Calabasas and we'll follow it up. We can be a central relay point, so they don't have to worry about who to call...
Thank you, Supervisor.
Trust to Acquire Lower Tuna Property
A mile-long stretch of riparian habitat will be preserved in 417-acre acquisition of Lower Tuna Canyon sought by the Mountains Restoration Trust.
By Susan Chasen
The Mountains Restoration Trust is close to completing a 417-acre acquisition of Lower Tuna Canyon that will share a border with portions of the Lower Topanga Canyon property which is also in the final stages of acquisition.
Trust President Stephen Harris said the property includes all the riparian habitat from Pacific Coast Highway to about a mile up Tuna Canyon. Except for an intervening 25-acre parcel along the Pacific Coast Highway that is not part of the acquisition, the Tuna Canyon property borders Lower Topanga Canyon.
"Tuna Canyon is considered...to be the most pristine coastal canyon within the Southern California region," said Harris. "Our intent is to try to preserve this coastal canyon and its natural habitat."
Harris said the seller is a partnership but that he does not have permission to release any names. Similarly, he could not provide details about the price. He did say it is a "bargain purchase," with the cash cost expected to be under $2 million because the seller is interested in the tax advantages of making a large charitable contribution of the remaining value of the property.
The purchase is expected to be completed by the end of November with a number of agencies involved.
The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy provided a grant to cover $75,000 for the purchase option.
While there are no plans yet for how the property will be used, Harris said he expects it will provide passive recreation opportunities and open space for resource protection. Also he said there have been discussions about a loop trail connecting with the future Lower Topanga parkland. "All our properties are open to the public," said Harris.
The Mountains Restoration Trust is a non-profit organization that has helped to acquire 3,000 acres for protection in the Santa Monica Mountains, and is the largest nongovernmental owner of preserved lands in the Mountains. The MRT retains over 1,000 acres of sensitive Cold Creek Canyon which is open to the public daily by reservation. Its remaining properties are open to the public without restriction.
Harris, who has been on the Trust board for 20 years, said this acquisition has been in the works on and off for two years and that original discussions date back 15 years to a previous owner.
"It's called patience," said Harris.
Although the seller has had discussions with developers and engineers about the property, Harris said his organization tries to be "proactive" in pursuing resource protection and habitat linkages before there is a development threat.
Where there is development, he said, the MRT works with adjacent neighbors to maintain habitat health and the resource values that attracted them to the mountains in the first place "so what we see today is the same thing we see a hundred years from now.
"Just owning the land, we don't feel is sufficient," said Harris. "Most people want to do the right thing, they just don't know how."
Other portions of Tuna and Pena Canyons are owned by the National Parks Service, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the MRT, and additional properties are being sought for acquisition. However, the top of the watershed--Upper Tuna Canyon--remains threatened with development.
The MRT is preparing a broad environmental analysis of Upper Tuna to provide a resource for protecting and enhancing the health of that watershed.
Sprinting Through the Canyon
PHOTO BY KATIE DALSEMER
One of eight microcell box installations approved by the County.
By Susan Chasen
The County Regional Planning Commission voted August 8 to approve Sprint PCS' application to install wireless communications equipment, along with adjoining power cabinets, at eight sites along Topanga Canyon Boulevard.
The project has drawn local criticism for the cluttering effect of competing equipment installations proliferating throughout the Canyon. Other concerns include the safety of cell phone use by Canyon drivers and environmental impacts from equipment maintenance.
With Planning Commission approval, anyone who has commented on the project will receive notification of a 15-day appeals period. If there is no appeal during that period, Sprint will be able to complete installation of the project.
The project consists of 10 equipment sites between the coast and Mulholland Drive along Topanga Canyon Boulevard, but two are within the City of Los Angeles and were previously approved.
Some of the equipment, including antennas and microcell boxes measuring 36" x 19" x 11" mounted on utility poles, is already in place. However, still to come with this approval will be the adjoining power cabinets--about 4 feet high by 3 feet wide--at each site, to be mounted on concrete pads of 15 to 19 square feet. One site south of Fernwood will have an 8'x 3' concrete pad to accommodate a power cabinet and microhut. Also, one new pole has been added for the project.
Roger Pugliese, Chair of Topanga Association for a Scenic Community, spoke at a June 28 hearing on the project. "I spoke my peace and they just pushed it forward," said Pugliese. "Until more people are paying attention and speak out against this assault of the wireless industry, we will be flooded with these types of things."
Pugliese said he has talked with a number of other people throughout the mountains who are bothered by the "visual blight" of the wireless installations. Also, the fact that the County is legally prohibited from considering health effects in reviewing these projects is another major concern, said Pugliese.
Cathy Bilsky of Angelite Om Inc. testified about the practical impacts of having one of the Sprint sites above her crystals store, blocking access during the equipment's frequent maintenance work.
To accommodate her concerns and those of nearby Topanga Hauling, Sprint has reportedly agreed to move that equipment site across the street.
Other conditions for approval include: release from the standard parking place requirement for maintenance vehicles, which will instead park on the road shoulder; removal of graffiti within 24 hours; and cooperation when possible with future wireless companies seeking installations in Topanga.
Objections to wireless equipment are being heard in communities throughout the Mountains and elsewhere, especially because the new equipment is coming at a time when communities are hoping to see existing power and communications cables buried underground. In some places, poles have been resurrected for wireless company equipment even after utility equipment has been buried and poles removed.
In addressing this issue, County staff determined that there are no current plans for undergrounding Topanga's wireworks. However, Sprint has a 10-year permit for this equipment and prospects for undergrounding will be reviewed when the project is up for renewal in 2011.
In a related matter, the Planning Commission voted approval of a Wireless Telecommunications Ordinance that has been four years in the drafting. It is expected to go to the Board of Supervisors sometime in September or October.
Kennel Controversy Unleashed
By Sarah Margolis
PHOTOS BY KATIE DALSEMER
"Would you have moved in next to a dog kennel?" On July 18 that was the question long-time Topanga resident Jake Stehelin posed to the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission. In a neighborhood conflict, Stehelin opposes Joe Timko and Randy Neece's application for a County-required zoning change from Light Agricultural to Heavy Agricultural. This, and a Conditional Use Permit, would allow continued operation of their dog kennel/spa, Canyon View Training Ranch for Dogs, on the Topanga Mesa.
At the July meeting, 25 supporters of the dog ranch testified, including immediate neighbors from Will Geer Road, clients, and friends. Neece and Timko and their internationally famous doggie Nirvana, complete with bone-shaped wading pool, were illuminated as helpful neighbors, outstanding dog trainers, community-minded volunteers, and sensitive human beings in a kaleidoscopic wheel of praise.
But, for the eight opponents, the question was not whether the Ranch and its owners are beneficial for the community. Obviously there is a need for an open-air dog kennel in Los Angeles County, said one opponent, "The question is, is [the residential, still-rural Mesa] the proper place for the County to have this need addressed?"
Stehelin, who is building a house on the Mesa, leads the opposition and sent a letter to all Topangans a few months ago asking for their help in preventing a zoning change that he perceives as an environmental and community threat. Neece and Timko's lawyer, Chuck Moore, stated that this was the first time he had seen an opponent to a zoning change in Topanga also be a "developer." It was a charge that both Stehelin and his wife, Fran Roberts, who have owned the land for 10 years, vigorously denied. Roberts testified that she was surprised to hear her husband is a developer. If he was, she stated, "He would have built and sold [this] house a long time ago."
The two crucial issues for the opponents, which include several Hillside Drive residents, are legality and increased traffic.
According to a staff report on the project, Regional Planning became aware that Canyon View was operating without proper permits when a woman complained that her dog had died there a year-and-a-half ago. Since that time, Neece and Timko were issued a "clean hands" waiver--a motion that says they can keep their business operating until their request for zoning changes and a Conditional Use Permit is either accepted or denied. On their part, they must follow certain conditions during that interim time.
Neece and Timko have accepted the conditions of the waiver with one major exception. The waiver allows them to have 10 dogs overnight, but the owners acknowledge they generally have 30 nightly guests. Neece and Timko stated that they never agreed to this point in the waiver, saying they could not operate with less than 30 dogs .
Some speakers expressed concern that approval could mean a further expansion of Canyon View. Stehelin asked what will happen when they are given permission for 30? What if economic circumstances demand they work with more dogs? "What they're doing is frankly not legal," contends Stehelin.
The other major issue is that neighbors on Hillside find the extra traffic generated on the remote and winding road annoying and potentially perilous. One opponent who testified pointed out that most houses on Hillside are older properties, closer to the road. The majority of the proponents, who live on Will Geer Road, have larger lots and newer houses set farther back. There was also concern that frantic dog owners racing up the narrow road in a fire might panic and create a tragedy.
"To me the issue is not whether these are good people with a wonderful project that can turn pit bulls into angels. To me the issue is what's going to happen in the next fire," said one Hillside resident.
Other objections were noise and the potential that the zoning change and permit might set a precedent for other agricultural business enterprises such as equestrian centers.
Many of Neece and Timko's neighbors testified that dog noise is not an issue. Several stated that problematic barking more likely comes from one of the Will Geer Road hounds that has not benefited from the free training and boarding Neece and Timko have offered to neighbors. In response to traffic, according to Timko, only five to 10 extra client cars a day go to the Ranch. Neece and Timko pointed out that many people come up for other reasons, including construction workers going to Stehelin's property. They also welcome reports of careless drivers and give a "once-and-only-once" warning to clients. In addition, they said, the Fire Department considers their grounds a safe haven for people and dogs. Owners are requested not to come up in an emergency.
Timko stated very strongly at the meeting that they are willing to work with their neighbors and resolve any issues with "creative solutions," such as a dog pick-up/drop-off point in the Center. Further, their application includes a covenant with the County which would not allow anyone else to purchase their business, and a "discretionary" approval from the Commission, forcing the County to look at new requests on a case-by-case basis rather than relying on their precedent.
The hearing did not come to a conclusion and was scheduled to be continued on Wednesday, October 10, giving Timko and Neece some time to gather data and form a response to the testimony.
Park Purchase Gets Green Light
PHOTO BY KATIE DALSEMER
The Rodeo Grounds foot bridge, designed and built in 1980 by residents, is an example of the community's effort to preserve and maintain itself.
By Susan Chasen
The California Public Works Board authorized the $48 million acquisition of Lower Topanga Canyon by State Parks at its August 10 meeting in Sacramento, and the sale is now expected to be completed by August 29.
Once finalized, the new 1,659-acre property will link Topanga State Park to the coast, fulfilling the original vision of the park from at least the 1970s.
PHOTO BY TONY MORRIS
State Parks officials say some Lower Topanga businesses may have a place in the future park.
However, there are still many decisions to be made regarding the future of the site. Most important will be the handling of relocations for the long-standing community of artists and others who have lived there for decades and who are facing their own loss of habitat because affordable residential options in the Santa Monica Mountains have disappeared.
The Public Works Board, which consists of the directors of the state Finance, General Services and Transportation Departments voted to approve the acquisition as part of a consent agenda after no one was present to comment on the matter.
"We've been given a green light to proceed with executing purchase documents," said Warren Westrup, State Parks' acquisitions chief.
At this point, Westrup said, State Parks is open to retaining some of the businesses of Lower Topanga and incorporating them into the future park, but it will depend on results of additional water quality studies and will mean relinquishing rights to relocation assistance and compensation.
"We would like to do a thorough job of evaluating the existing businesses," said Westrup. "There is a strong possibility that we will retain some of the businesses as visitor-serving businesses."
A $1 million portion of the $48 million will go to administrative costs and further study of whether septic tanks are contributing to water quality problems in the lagoon. If there is a problem from the businesses, Westrup said State Parks will look at what it would take to fix them up.
Similarly, timing for residential relocation will likely depend on whether residential septic systems are contributing to water quality problems, according to Westrup.
Westrup said the earliest possible target date for relocation is next summer.
Residents deny the "leaky septic systems" charge that has been circulating since the possible parkland acquisition was announced. Westrup acknowledged that these charges have not been adequately confirmed and that Topanga Beach actually has better water quality than most. However, he suggested the beach may be protected from problems in the lagoon because it is often closed off by sand that acts as a filter.
According to residents' research on the subject, the more likely suspects for lagoon contamination are road run-off and raw sewage from homeless encampments. Also, they are told water quality problems at the beach may be correlated with possible inundation of beach house septic systems along Pacific Coast Highway, especially during high summer tides.
"Whether they are from other sources or whether they are the resident septic systems, that is yet to be proved," said Westrup. "That's what we're looking at."
The current timeline for the acquisition is influenced in part by the seller, LAACO Ltd., parent company of the Los Angeles Athletic Club. The sale has to be completed by August 29 for LAACO to remain eligible for an Internal Revenue Service capital gains tax-deferment by reinvesting proceeds of this sale into other property.
LAACO Vice President Fred Zepeda would not comment on the tax arrangement or any related acquisition by the company. "The sale is not complete. We're working on it," he said.
The original IRS deadline was July 14, but LAACO sought an extension to accommodate State Parks' public hearing and authorization requirements.
Westrup said moving quickly will also accommodate Lower Topanga tenants who need their relocation monies as soon as possible. He expects funds to be available in September.
As part of relocation compensation, tenants may receive in a lump sum the equivalent of 42 months of rental assistance covering the difference in current rent and that of a comparable dwelling elsewhere. In this case, estimates for this entitlement begin around $42,000, but could be much higher depending on the rental costs for comparable housing.
Bernt Capra, a 21-year Rodeo Grounds resident and leader in the tenants' cause, said he was disappointed that the staff report to the Public Works Board didn't incorporate any input from the tenants or the sentiments expressed at the July 9 community meeting.
In a letter to the Public Works Board, he called plans to eliminate the Lower Topanga community a "perversion" of Proposition 12. "Prop. 12 money was not generated to destroy existing neighborhoods," said Capra.
To Capra, the "highest and best use" of Lower Topanga is still to preserve it as an artists' colony, even to allow the existing community to be fixed up and co-exist with a surrounding park. Failing that, the tenants would like extended leases for those who want to stay, or perhaps for State Parks to assist with acquisition of another property where the community might rebuild itself.
"With my income, I know I cannot reproduce the lifestyle I have here anywhere else," said Capra, who relentlessly seeks support for people who live modest lifestyles so they can be artists or simply because money isn't their top priority.
Westrup said the testimony at the Topanga meeting was important to State Parks and a transcript has gone to the state legislature, but that it would not have been a factor for the Public Works Board to consider. He further said he was impressed by the response in Topanga last month and that he thought State Parks director Rusty Areias, who rearranged his schedule to attend and devoted an unusual amount of time to the meeting, was impressed as well.
"I think he could pick up on the passion that people felt," said Westrup. "I was very pleased that people came out and that as many of them spoke as they did."
A relocation plan which outlines the entitlements of each displaced tenant has not been completed yet. Once that's done, there will be a 30-day review and comment period before it can be adopted.
At this point, most of the tenants are cooperating with the relocation planning process, but they contend that comparable housing is not available and that this legal requirement, along with a mandate to minimize their hardship, should result in a negotiated agreement with State Parks, possibly involving extended leases.
Currently, $4 million out of the $48 million acquisition cost is expected to go to relocation of the 48 residential tenants and those among the 14 business tenants who end up relocating or shutting down.
Asked whether State Parks will negotiate with the tenants over relocation plans, Westrup said he thought so. "I'm sure we will be having more discussions with Frank Angel," said Westrup, referring to the attorney representing many of the tenants. "I think they will be ongoing as we develop more data....I would like to see us be as responsive as we can be."
He also said he has advised the State Parks Southern Service Center, which is preparing an interim plan for the park including historical and cultural resource evaluations, to involve the Lower Topanga community in the process.
Lower Topanga residents were pleased at the meeting last month that so many supporters of the park also supported their bid for fair treatment.
"We were really overwhelmingly, pleasantly surprised about the community support from all kinds of people that we did not know," said Scott Dittrich, a nearly 30-year Rodeo Grounds resident.
Especially important, according to Dittrich, were the many who opposed fast-track eviction and supported creative solutions to minimize their hardship.
Affordable housing is a critical issue," said Dittrich. "This is one of the few pockets of affordable housing along the coast and in the mountains."
Dittrich said he and his wife have been looking for a house or a possible property for a larger group of residents to relocate to, but are not having any luck: "Everything we look at has a huge problem."
The intermediary in the transaction--the non-profit American Land Conservancy based in San Francisco--will receive an undisclosed share of the $43 million sale price from LAACO as a charitable donation. In a simultaneous transaction, LAACO will sell the property to ALC for a privately determined price under $43 million and ALC will sell to State Parks for $43 million.
"When we close escrow then we've succeeded at facilitating the transfer of that property. We've accomplished our role, which I think is a really big accomplishment in this case," said Jeff Stump, ALC project manager.
It's been 11 years since the ALC first started talking with LAACO about this sale, said Stump, and he credits ALC with bringing landowners like LAACO to the table when they might not otherwise be willing.
"It ranks up there as one that's taken the longest." But, said Stump, "All the projects we do are complicated. That's why ALC exists."
Stump said ALC will remain involved as an advocate for restoring Topanga Creek and Lagoon and making the park a gateway into the Santa Monicas.
The involvement of the ALC in the sale has been a source of controversy because the organization appeared to be expediting relocation in an effort to shield both LAACO and State Parks from the complicated human issues associated with the property. After decades of rental income going to LAACO under unusual terms which saw residents assuming costly maintenance and repair expenses, ALC was going to take on the relocation problem to make the deal more attractive to State Parks and to create a timeline suited to LAACO's interests.
Now however, without trying to block the sale, the tenants have slowed the train down at little and are continuing to assert their rights under the state Relocation Law and to advocate for recognition of their unique art-oriented community as being itself a kind of endangered species.
Over the years, said Dittrich, housing prices weren't always so high, but Lower Topanga tenants missed opportunities to buy because of the investments they made in their Lower Topanga homes.
"You either let the house completely go or you were forced to put all this money into it," said Dittrich. "We had to act like owners. We didn't want to just walk away."
And, of course, there are several who purchased their house but leased their land. They were required in the 1970s to sign their houses over to the Los Angeles Athletic Club--now LAACO--or have them removed, and then to continue paying rent.
The apparent urgency to acquire the LAACO property and the high price tag has been justified by the alleged development potential of the site. Tenants, however, recently unearthed a 1984 letter from LAACO attorneys to the California Coastal Commission saying that modifications in the Malibu Land Use Plan would "render the property for all practical purposes undevelopable."
Those restrictions, such as prohibiting any alteration of Topanga Creek, virtually eliminating residential development and restricting commercial use, could very likely be applied today as well. LAACO's complaint was that the property was in a "Catch 22" because, without significant flood control modifications and stream channeling even the limited development allowed wouldn't be possible, and with flood control work the allowable uses wouldn't be cost effective.
LAACO today contends that the property is developable. The 1984 letter may suggest otherwise, but it also tells the convoluted story of earlier days when LAACO might have been able to develop. Instead, LAACO was being courted by State Parks and consistently lost ground to increasingly restrictive coastal zone planning regulations.
Beach Bike Path Extension Gains Ground
PHOTO BY TONY MORRIS
Palisades and Santa Monica Canyon seek extension of the beach bike path.
By Susan Chasen
A proposed extension of the beach bike path from Temescal Canyon Road to Coastline Drive was rejected last month by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who also sits on the MTA board, offered some encouragement to two nearby community organizations pushing for the project.
Yaroslavsky suggested the County and the MTA might provide matching funds for the $5.8 million project if the City of Los Angeles agreed to put in an equal or somewhat larger share.
"The City is the biggest driving force behind this," said Yaroslavsky. "I do believe it's a good project....It's just very expensive.
"It's unrealistic to expect the MTA to shoulder this cost alone."
The MTA's rejection of the proposal means the two-mile bike path extension will not be included in the agency's new projects' budget for this year and 2002. But Yaroslavsky's alternative could see additional funding lined up in time for the next new projects vote in 2003.
Yaroslavsky said piecing the funding together is a realistic goal and is necessary because the project will cost $2.6 million per mile, more than most roads cost. According to MTA planners, bike path construction is usually about $1 million per mile.
The MTA has already funded engineering and design of the project, but construction costs are so high because it involves elevating and cantilevering the pathway over rocky, narrow stretches of coastline.
The Santa Monica Canyon Civic Association and the Pacific Palisades Community Council are pushing for the project both to improve safety for cyclists and to encourage use of the path by commuters.
MTA planner Warren Whiteaker agreed that from a safety standpoint there is a need, especially in light of the dangers of biking along the Pacific Coast Highway north of Temescal by the Bel Air Bay Club. But, he said there are a number of other concerns that have not been addressed, such as the commitment of commuters to use the pathway as an alternative to driving.
According to a survey by the Community Council, nearly a third of early morning cyclists on the path are commuters. Whiteaker said that information was a step in the right direction, but he noted also that it only amounted to eight cyclists.
Whiteaker said the City of Los Angeles would already be contributing 20 percent of the project cost, but that the remaining $4.6 million still would consume most of the MTA's $7 million annual budget for bike paths and related projects.
Boeken Award Cut
Viewridge resident Richard Boeken's record-breaking $3 billion award in his successful lawsuit against cigarette company Philip Morris has been reduced to $100 million by a Los Angeles judge.
Boeken, 56, whose lung cancer has spread to his back and brain, has until August 24 to decide whether to accept the reduced punitive damage award or have the punitive damage question returned to court for a new trial. The long-time Marlboro smoker was also awarded $5.54 million in compensatory damages.
The jury's original $3 billion award was the highest ever on behalf of an individual smoker. However, so is $100 million. Philip Morris sought a reduction to $25 million.
In his ruling, Superior Court Judge Charles W. McCoy, Jr. found the 540 to one ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages to be excessive. By reducing it to 18 to one, it still exceeds the highest previously known ratio of three to one in a comparable case.
While his decision reportedly condemns Philip Morris as "legally and morally reprehensible" for suppressing evidence of the dangers of smoking, Judge McCoy noted that there are likely to be other large punitive damages awards against the cigarette maker in other cases.
Boeken, who started smoking in 1957, became addicted before there were warning labels and public awareness campaigns. Boeken's attorney Michael Puize argued that Philip Morris manipulated the formulation of cigarettes with such additives as urea and chocolate to enhance and speed the addictiveness of its cancer-causing product.
Philip Morris' attorneys are appealing.
Boeken, father to three grown stepsons, moved to Topanga with his wife Judy and their nine-year-old son a year ago when they thought he had beaten cancer. Now they do not know if he will live to see the resolution of his ground-breaking case.
Distemper Outbreak in the Canyon
By Tony Morris
An outbreak of distemper in the Canyon has been confirmed by Animal Control. According to Susan Clark of Topanga Animal Rescue, a number of residents have called her after observing raccoons during daylight hours displaying unusual behavior characteristic of the viral disease. Distemper, which can be fatal to unvaccinated dogs, can spread rapidly, and dogs can become infected after encounters with diseased animals.
Symptoms of distemper include fever, thick nasal discharge, and respiratory distress with muscle spasms in the hind legs. Clark advises Canyon residents to make certain their dogs have been vaccinated and that those vaccinations are up-to-date.
Should a dead raccoon be observed, residents are asked to call Animal Control at (818) 991-0071 and Susan Clark at (310) 455-7268 before attempting to dispose of the animal.
By Tony Morris
Traffic accidents on Topanga Canyon Boulevard remain a real danger to Topanga residents and drivers passing through the community. On August 9 two vehicles were involved in a collision near the intersection of Entrada and Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Station 69 received a call at 1:11 p.m. and arrived on scene within minutes. A California Highway Patrol unit traveling in the area also responded. While there was extensive damage to both vehicles--a Porsche heading north on the boulevard and a late model sedan going south--neither driver required emergency medical treatment.