SMMC Catches Big Tuna
By Susan Chasen
The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has announced plans for a major 1,407-acre parkland acquisition between Tuna Canyon and Las Flores Canyon that, combined with another expected purchase, will soon be linked to State Park's new Lower Topanga property. The deal represents a stunning application of California's new Tax Credit Act, which encouraged the landowner to offer most of the property as a donation.
The offer, from biotech pioneer Alfred E. Mann, surprised Conservancy officials who first heard the proposal only about two months ago, according to Paul Edelman, chief of natural resources and planning for the Conservancy. It entails a 1,167-acre donation and the sale of an adjoining 240-acre parcel for $7 million.
MAP COURTESY OF SMM CONSERVANCY
The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy plans to acquire a 1,407-acre property in four watersheds and adjoining the Mountain Restoration Trust's expected 416-acre acquisition.
Mann stands to receive around $20 million in tax savings by donating the land. The Natural Heritage Preservation Tax Credit Act of 2000 rewards donations of crucial wildlife habitat, open space linkages and parkland with a 55 percent reduction in state taxes owed.
The state Wildlife Conservation Board administers the tax credit program and is expected to approve the proposal in November, said Edelman. The new law authorizes $100 million in tax credits through the year 2005.
According to Edelman, the Conservancy will then have a year to pay the $7 million for the 240-acre portion.
This acquisition comes on the heels of the 1,659-acre Lower Topanga Canyon purchase by the California Department of Parks and Recreation and will eventually be linked to it by yet another acquisition. By the end of the year, the Mountains Restoration Trust is expected to close the sale on a 416-acre property that includes most of Lower Tuna Canyon and shares a boundary with both the other properties.
These, along with the Conservancy's 366 acres on the western end of the Tuna Canyon property, comprise 3,848 acres of new parkland adjoining Topanga State Park.
With one stroke, the Coast Slope Trail, which falls almost entirely within these new acquisitions, is being born and, with its ocean views and sea breezes, is expected to become a popular attraction, according to Edelman. From here, he said, the meeting of Topanga State Park and Malibu Creek State Park is only separated by the distance between Las Flores Canyon and Carbon Canyon, the next canyon over.
"It really helps with east-west trail linkages in the Santa Monica Mountains," said Edelman. "It's really great to get a big blockbuster coastal acquisition to go along with the other two."
Without the tax credit program, he said, this deal would never have happened.
"That's really what was driving it," he said. "There's no way public agencies could come up with so much cash."
He said the property is valued at over $30 million and includes extensive flat areas with great views and good water pressure that made it attractive to developers.
"Eventually, someone was going to grab that."
Mann, who once proposed an extensive development including a golf course, hotel, condominiums, houses and a sewage treatment plan, reportedly did not want the development fight and needed the tax break. A company he founded in the 1980s, MiniMed Inc., that pioneered work on insulin pumps for diabetes patients was recently sold to Medtronic for about $3.1 billion. Another of his many biomedical accomplishments was the creation of the rechargeable pacemaker in the 1970s that solved the problem of pacemakers wearing out within two years.
Here in Topanga, especially among residents of Upper Tuna Canyon, news of the unexpected windfall in parkland was seen as nothing short of divine intervention. Though it doesn't end the current development battle being waged by members of Tuna Canyon Neighborhood Association, it hands them an even bigger victory in a war against sprawling mountain development to the south and west.
"We're extremely happy that the state agrees with what we've been saying for years, that this land is incredibly precious and should be preserved for the people of California," said Kay Austen with TUNA.
Austen said she participated in a Native American "healing" ceremony last spring led by Fernwood shaman Amanda Foulger on the Tuna Canyon ridge included in this deal.
"We called on the spirits to heal us and the land, and to protect it," said Austen. "I feel they've come through for us."
Members of TUNA are still hoping the 16 lots threatened with development will be sold to a park agency. At the Conservancy's September 24 meeting, when the Board agreed to pursue the Tuna acquisition, it also voted on a revised overall Tuna Canyon Project Plan. The project includes only eight of the Upper Tuna parcels facing development.
Roger Pugliese, chair of Topanga Association for a Scenic Community, requested an amendment to the plan to add the remaining eight lots and was told it will appear on an upcoming agenda. One of the eight lots is being cleared for construction, he said, but it might still be possible to save the others.
"Maybe we'll end up with one house instead of 16," said Pugliese.
At the same time, he is pleased with the direction the Conservancy is going in.
"I was very happy that the agencies have decided to see how valuable the Tuna Canyon watershed is," said Pugliese. "We're going to end up with almost the entire Tuna Canyon watershed protectedÉ.I'm pleased that the stars must have been aligned. It shows that the political powers that be are very serious about land preservation. Over the last six months some vast amounts of land have been put into public ownership."
Conservation biologist Rosi Dagit said she recalled the Environmental Impact Report for the massive development and is glad the project is history.
"I'm thrilled," said Dagit. "It really opens the door for a comprehensive recreational opportunity."
According to Edelman, even if for some reason the Conservancy can't pay the $7 million for the 240 acres, the remainder of the property will still be donated.
Bernt Capra, a resident of Lower Topanga Canyon who is facing relocation by next summer because of the park acquisition there, said he thinks the acquisition should reduce the urgency to clear the Lower Topanga property.
"Why wipe out this affordable housing, causing real problems for real people?" asked Capra. "What's the urgency in getting these 50 acres with residences.
"They've amassed all this land, but they have no way to open it to the public," said Capra. If the tenants could stay on longer, he suggested, rent payments could cover some of the expenses of all the new parkland.
The vast Tuna Canyon property includes significant sections of the Pena and Piedra Gorda canyon watersheds that Edelman described as "little ecological jewels" with "zero development." It also includes sections of the Tuna and Las Flores watersheds. Another key feature of the property is its network of trails provided by fire roads--Hearst Tank, Big Rock and Budwood motorways.
Goodman Leaves Topanga Elementary
By Susan Chasen
Topanga Elementary School's principal, Eileen Goodman, announced suddenly on September 17 at the end of the school day that she had been promoted and would not be returning to the school.
The revelation came as a shock to teachers as well as to parents just arriving to pick up their children.
Goodman began her new job as principal at Vine Street Elementary School in Hollywood, immediately after the Rosh Hashanah holiday. As principal of a year-round school with 1,100 students, Goodman will get a pay raise and will have support staff including an assistant principal.
Topanga second-grade teacher Laurie Feinman-Gurvis stepped in as principal until September 28. Then retired principal Gerald Dodge was expected to take over and assist with selection of a new principalÑa process expected to take two or three months.
Goodman said her decision does not reflect badly on Topanga.
"It's just the opposite," she said, because it was a great training ground.
"I enjoyed being there. I learned a lot and I had wonderful support from the parents. The teachers are excellentÉand the kids are just great."
She said the news of her promotion came as a surprise to her as well.
"I did not want to have happen what happened," said Goodman. It was very sad, she said, to say good-bye to the students at the last assembly.
She said she interviewed for her new position in August, and had expected a decision during the summer.
Gurvis said she understood that Goodman was simply making a career move.
"She really wanted to go into a year-round school," said Gurvis. "She felt really bad, but this was an opportunity for her to grow in her profession."
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Gurvis said the transition is going well so far and that she has had great support from the teachers and office manager.
Some have expressed concern that Topanga Elementary has difficulty hiring and keeping good principals.
Goodman confirmed that, from a career standpoint, there are disadvantages at Topanga Elementary compared with larger, year-round schools
"Having the school get an assistant principal would be huge," said Goodman. "That would make life 100 times easier."
Recently, she said, there was a proposal to provide administrative assistance to single principal schools to help with lengthy individualized meeting requirements for children in special education. But budget constraints appear to have put the idea on hold.
At a school like Topanga with 40 to 50 special education students, these educational planning meetings with the principal amount to about 100 to 125 hours.
Beginning in July, she said there will be a contract change that reduces the principal's summer vacation to four weeks so there will be a pay increase for the new principal.
Gurvis, while recognizing certain career advantages at other schools, is optimistic that Topanga will attract a well qualified candidate because it is a great school in a great community.
The Leadership Council, which includes three parent representatives, five teachers, a teacher's aide and the interim principal, will act as the selection committee.
According to parent representative Karen Hunter-Quartz, the Leadership Council will try to incorporate the strong parent interest in the process.
"There's a big feeling that it needs to be very inclusive," said Quartz. "This should be a time for us to really come together."
She is concerned that the timing will limit the pool of applicants, but also that the school needs to create an environment that makes a principal want to stay and grow with the school.
In the last 10 years, the school has seen the position change hands at least three times. Goodman, who had been an assistant principal at a year-round school for five years, was hired in February 1998.
"People don't realize what a hard job it is," said Quartz, "and what a huge job it is to please this community."
Quartz is very interested in finding respectful ways to resolve differences.
"It's not about running people out of town," said Quartz. "It's time for our community to reflect on how a leader is going to want to stay and how we can build the kind of school we want for our kids."
Goodman said she tried to do more balancing between parents and teachers than was done in the past.
"It used to be all parents," said Goodman. "I wanted to allow the teachers to do what they wanted to do."
Overall, Goodman said she is proud of her time at Topanga Elementary School and values the relationships she formed there.
She said she maintained the quality instructional program and supported incorporating the Galef Institute's ideas.
Also, she was happy to support third-grade teacher Nancy Spire in pioneering a new math program for the school last year.
"It's going to be a wonderful asset to the school," said Goodman.
And there are other things that make her proud, like the new counter in the office, new play equipment, the sprinkler system and added trees and grassy areas.
There are also the 12 little plants she planted outside the office during her first spring vacation. Thanks to the sprinklers they are thriving now.
"I thought it was important for flowers to be blooming, for kids to see things growing," said Goodman.
I'm Your Captain
PHOTO BY KATIE DALSEMER
Captain Wilson is the new guy at Fire Station 69.
By Penny Taylor
While Captain Mike Johnson is out with a knee injury, Captain Mike Wilson has taken up residence at Los Angeles County Fire Station 69, C Shift. Don't let the fact that he's a young'un, just promoted from engineer in Glendora, fool you. He's probably done 12 stations in the 13 years he's been a firefighter and has a broad background that includes truck and engine firefighting, hazardous materials, confined space rescue, engineer and a stint as a fire inspector.
Did he want to be a firefighter from the time he was five? Nooo. Born in New York and raised in Carson, he opted for an education in Business Administration, attending Pepperdine University. Although he drove through Topanga, he never got to know it. Finishing Pepperdine in 1985, he went to work in sales and management training for a transportation company.
That just didn't sit right.
"They didn't need me, I needed them. I wanted a career where people needed me."
He wanted a job where he could help people and make a difference, so he focused on being a firefighter.
Captain Wilson lives in Carson with his wife, Tanya; his two sons, Damani, age nine, and Jabari, seven; and his five-year-old daughter, Nyah. He doesn't get much time for the hobbies he enjoys--motorcycles, camping, traveling and skiing--because he's up to his ears in coaching. He's active in all his boys' teams. When not at work or doing youth sports, he sings for the Fire Department at special events and memorials.
One of his first public outings in Topanga was the Candlelight Vigil held at Pine Tree Circle on September 14, where he got up to speak some heartfelt words.
His easy-going manner makes it seem like he's been around the station longer than three weeks.
"Topanga is definitely a unique community. This is a good fit for me because I like interfacing with the residents and having them involved. I'd like to stay here for awhile, but you never know. I was hoping I'd get a good spot. And I've got a good crew."
"L.A. County Fire Station 69, Captain Wilson," he says, answering the phone. I ask him how it feels to be answering 'Captain.' He smiles: "I'm getting used to it."
We Like Mike
PHOTO BY TONY MORRIS
Arson Watch's Allen Emerson presents certificate of appreciation to Fire Captain Mike Johnson.
By Penny Taylor
"We like Mike." Those were the sentiments of the Topanga Town Council when they held a special appreciation dinner for Captain Mike Johnson of Los Angeles County Fire Station 69. Captain Johnson has spent 13 of his 26 years as a firefighter here in Topanga. He's wrangled rattlesnakes, traversed mountainous terrain to get to a plane crash, and faced more than a few fires, including the November '93 Topanga fire.
His wife Patty, his daughter-in-law Angie, and his sons Ryan and Christian were with him as everyone joined at Rocco's on September 24 to honor him for his dedication and "above and beyond the call" work in Topanga. Or, as it said on one of the commemorative plaques, "Topanga's Own Captain Courageous."
"It's been a privilege and honor to be in Topanga," Captain Johnson shared with those gathered.
In speaking of his work in other areas and stations he said, "Nowhere else are you on a first-name basis with the entire community." He told of other communities where citizens weren't involved. His warmth and connection with this community shone through with admiration as he said, "The people of Topanga are people who steer their own ship. They know when to make noise and they know when to keep quiet."
He looked around at the other firefighters gathered and beamed, "It's been just great working with you guys." Then he whipped an affectionate side-shot at Captain Floyd, "Except you, Steve." There was laughter all around, because these two couldn't be any closer.
Allen Emerson of Arson Watch presented Mike with a certificate of appreciation and, on the other end of the table, Town Council President Dale Robinette presented a plaque.
No gathering like this would be complete without the shift on duty being toned out before the party could even get started for a traffic accident. And when the festivities were underway fire stories just had to be told.
Robinette recalled a fire when he lived in Old Canyon. It was a "nothing" fire and he went on into town to make his appointed rounds. When he returned hours later and saw the firefighters all dirty and tired near the Center, he was informed that his house was OK. He was confused, since the fire hadn't been near his house. "The second fire came within 50 feet," Mike informed him.
Captain Mike Johnson, you are one of the warmest, most decent human beings I have ever known in my life. You are with Topanga, and it was clear from the dinner party everyone agrees.
Topangans Walk for Peace
PHOTO BY TONY MORRIS
By Tony Morris
Early on Sunday morning, September 23, a group of approximately 25 Topangans, young and old, met at Pine Tree Circle. Inspired by events in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, they set off up Topanga Canyon Boulevard to the Community House, accompanied by a miniature Doberman Pinscher and a Labrador retriever, in a march of peace. Some of the children walked, others rode on parent's shoulders.
The group walked with no flags or posters. Motorists with American flags flapping on the side of their vehicles honked horns in support. An hour later the group arrived at the Community House.
Postal Employee Celebrates 20 Years
PHOTO (BELOW) BY TONY MORRIS
Most of us recognize Michael Gallagher as seen on the left, but for Postmaster Oscar Reynoso's birthday party, Michael (seen right) dressed up.
By Tony Morris
Michael Gallagher is celebrating his 20th year with the U.S. Postal Service. Gallagher, who serves as Accounting Clerk with the Topanga Post Office branch, started his career in 1981 at Manhattan Beach. A native of Portsmouth, Virginia, Gallagher moved with his family to Long Beach in 1965 where his father was stationed in the Navy.
Michael arrived in Topanga on October 15, 1993 just two weeks before the start of the Topanga-Malibu fire. In 1995 he narrowly escaped death on Topanga Canyon Boulevard. After record-setting rains in 1995, Gallagher was driving to work near the S-curves when he came upon large rocks in the roadway. Before he could drive through the area a boulder the "size of a small car" fell from the hillside striking his Chevy Blazer behind the driver's seat. The impact of the boulder narrowly missed him, destroying the rear of his car and breaking his neck. Gallagher underwent delicate spinal surgery and returned to work in Topanga four months later.
Gallagher is proud of his career at the Post Office, but he looks forward to a change. He has been studying for the ministry by correspondence course with the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. In two years he expects to complete his studies as a Deacon in the Episcopal Church. Currently he is chairman of the Bishop's Committee on Addiction and Recovery for the Episcopal Church.
Gallagher looks back on his eight years at the Topanga Post Office with many good memories.
On Tuesday, September 25, police arrested a man near Top O' Topanga after a traffic stop, on allegations of possessing 12 Ecstasy tablets individually packaged for sale, according to Sergeant Peter Charbonneau of the Sheriff's Department.
Jorge Marroquinn, 37, was driving south when he was pulled over at 3360 North Topanga Canyon Boulevard for an expired registration. He was traveling with another person who was not detained.
According to Sergeant Charbonneau, Marroquinn, who reported no local address, was also wanted on an outstanding $2,500 arrest warrant.
Sewer Construction Resumes on PCH
Construction to replace a segment of the regional Coastal Interceptor Sewer (CIS) located within the Santa Monica city limits on the west side of Pacific Coast Highway resumed on October 1 and will be completed by Memorial Day 2002. The sewer was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
Traffic control installation, which began on Tuesday, September 25, will remain in place throughout the duration of the construction project, providing a minimum of two northbound and two southbound lanes to commuters at all times. A left-turn lane will be provided north of the California Incline, left turns will continue to be permitted onto PCH from the Incline, and both the Incline and Rand on-ramps to PCH from Ocean Avenue will remain open during construction.
For more information, please call the project hotline at (800) 200-8340.