News

Sherman Wins Beach Study Funds

Congressman Brad Sherman has announced funding for shoreline protection studies along the 30 miles of Los Angeles County public beaches.

The Army Corp of Engineers will receive $400,000 to continue these studies.

VOL.25 NO. 25
December 13, 2001 - January 10, 2002

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"Nothing epitomizes life in the Southland as much as our beaches. I am pleased that Congress is providing these funds to make sure that our Los Angeles County beaches are preserved," said Sherman.

Also, he noted that California beaches contribute over $74 billion to the economy and $14 billion in federal tax revenue.

Sherman also secured $1 million for acquisitions in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The amount is half of what he sought, and represented a compromise between the U.S. Senate which rejected any funding and the Congress which approved $2 million.

"I was pleased that we were able to get the House of Representatives to vote for $2 million for land acquisition this year," said Sherman. "Unfortunately, the Senate did not provide any funding for the Santa Monica Mountains this year...,but the extraordinary costs of waging a war on terrorism and providing relief to those whose lives and livelihoods were devastated on September 11th made it more difficult to secure money for the Santa Monica Mountains this year."

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Chief Freeman Visits Topanga

Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman and Assistant Fire Chief Mike Dyer met with members of the Citizens For Aerial Fire Protection at a Topanga residence on December 1 to discuss aerial firefighting options.

Chief Freeman made a presentation on the Fire Department’s initial attack response to wildfires throughout the county, giving particular emphasis to deployment of the department’s aerial firefighting arsenal. He also reviewed the history of the county’s leasing program for the SuperScooper water bombers from Quebec.

Stressing the importance of brush clearance in urban-wildland interface communities like Topanga, Freeman acknowledged the value of citizens' groups like Arson Watch and the Topanga Firesafe Committee. The Chief commended the high level of cooperation between the Fire Department and Topanga organizations.

Chief Freeman said deployment of SuperScooper aircraft is an important component of the firefighting arsenal, but that there is no panacea in fighting wildfires. SuperScoopers, Erickson, Firehawk and Bell 412 helicopters together provide the county’s arsenal. Freeman described the different capabilities of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, saying there are certain situations, such as steep canyon conditions, where helicopters can deliver superior firefighting results. SuperScoopers provide a rapid initial attack which is essential in stopping wildfires, but there are conditions where they may have limited effectiveness, he said.

The Citizens For Aerial Fire Protection plan to create a non-profit foundation with a goal of acquiring aircraft such as the SuperScooper, which could be donated to the county. Freeman said that the idea merits further discussion.

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Lower Topanga Tenants Will Fight Relocation Deadline

By Susan Chasen

A relocation plan for residents and businesses of Lower Topanga was released November 28 to mixed reactions from the community that is facing destruction to clear the way for a new state park.

The plan outlines assistance benefits which are expected to total $5.9 million for the 73 residential tenants and 15 businesses of Lower Topanga, and it maintains, at this point, that everyone is to be out in six months.

Residents were relieved by financial assistance levels promised in the plan, but they insist the July 1 deadline for everyone to be out is both unfair and unrealistic.

The situation for the businesses is more complicated. The plan does include prospective new sites for the businesses, but there are many variables yet to be worked out. Ultimately a few businesses may be retained as visitor services. The Topanga Ranch Motel, for example, which the plan acknowledges probably cannot be relocated, is expected to be designated as a historic resource by State Parks. For those that are relocated, there will be additional compensation later if necessary for business losses resulting from the move.

For residents, many are expected to receive enough assistance to make a down payment on a house. But for those who don't, the implications of the plan are very different.

"I would think a good number of the people ought to be able to get into a home situation," said Barry McDaniel, vice president of Pacific Relocation Consultants, the Long Beach company that prepared the plan.

Average residential benefits in the plan are about $75,000, according to McDaniel.

But it is a bittersweet victory at best. Many still would prefer to see their community preserved and incorporated into a creative vision for the future park.

John Clemens, a 28-year resident who moved to the Rodeo Grounds from Topanga Beach when the houses there were to be torn down, is still bothered by the destruction of his community by a public entity.

"No one in the world seems to understand the value of this place," said Clemens.

He recalled State Senator Sheila Kuehl's comments in the press to the effect that the tenants have "had it good" for a long time, but now it's time for them to move on so everyone can enjoy the property.

"It negates the idea of working for a lifetime to put down roots," said Clemens. "That's the strongest force in me, putting down roots….No amount of money will ever replace this community."

Ray Casser, who moved to Lower Topanga in 1965, echoed his sentiments.

"That's a long time," said Casser. "It's hard to replace. It's a nightmare."

According to Scott Dittrich, co-chair of the Lower Topanga Community Association and a 29-year resident who also moved from the beach, about 70 percent of his neighbors have lived in their homes for over 20 years. Fifteen to 20 households, he said, have been occupied by the same tenants for over 30 years and two for over 50. Currently, there are about 125 people living in Lower Topanga.

The Lower Topanga Community Association has 30 days to review the plan and make comments before it goes to the state General Services Agency for approval.

Dittrich said the plan may look better on the surface than it really is.

According to the report, relocation benefits depend largely on current house size and range from about $20,000 to a maximum of over $200,000 and include moving expenses as well.

"If you take away the top six to eight people with four or more bedrooms, everybody else is in a very different situation," said Dittrich, who has one of the largest homes.

While $75,000 is a lot of money, he said, the mortgage payments will be too high for most people to buy a home in any of the nearby areas.

The relocation benefit pays the difference in rent for 42 months. But for those who don't move far out of the area where housing prices are cheaper, the rent will be too high once the 3.5 years is up, said Dittrich.

"After three-and-a-half years, you fall off a cliff," said Dittrich. "I don't know what they're going to do."

The relocation benefits are high for Lower Topanga because the rents--from $427 to $1,280--are much lower than the market rate and there is little affordable housing remaining in the nearby beach and canyon communities.

Comparable dwellings, including some apartments in the area, range from $775 for a studio at the cheapest end to $6,000 per month for four bedrooms at the most expensive, according to the report.

State relocation law allows for the maximum estimated difference in rent over the entire 42 months to be pooled into a lump sum for use to make a down payment on a home. But those maximum numbers are not used if the person being relocated must continue to rent. So if a tenant is looking past the next 3.5 years, there is essentially no comparably priced rental housing in the area. In fact, the closer they get to their present rent, the lower the benefit amount.

At a meeting of the Lower Topanga Community Association on December 2, tenants agreed to seek lump sum payments for everyone.

The plan identifies 198 available comparable rental dwellings in Topanga, Malibu, Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica, but all with much higher rents than in Lower Topanga.

Dittrich contends, however, that the plan's vacancy assessment is far out of line and is further inflated by inappropriately including apartments. Dittrich's inquiries of local realtors found only 17 rental houses available in the Topanga/Malibu area for under $5,000.

What's most problematic about the report, said Dittrich, is the July 1 deadline.

"The amount of money that they're offering is in the ballpark," he said. But, at this point, he said, "It's not about money, it's about time."

According to Dittrich, in 1977, when vacancy rates were much higher, State Parks recommended relocating only 10 families per year because that was all the market in the area could absorb.

"What you really don't want to do is move out quickly and eat up the money you wanted to buy something with," said Dittrich.

Many tenants allege the rush is intended to serve Gov. Gray Davis' re-election campaign and to distract from deep cuts elsewhere in the state budget.

It's to clear the way for a "ribbon-cutting ceremony" in Lower Topanga, says Dittrich. "He wants to be the green, parks governor. That's great, but there's no reason to do it on the backs of the last affordable housing along the Southern California coast….Everything they want in the Interim Plan they can have tomorrow."

Many residents of the largely arts- and film-oriented community, which occupies only three percent of the 1,655-acre new park property, have embraced the idea of serving as unlikely citizen docents or park rangers, and do not object to opening their community to the public.

"The process is clearly very political," said resident Dan Hassid. "They are clearly on a fast track to get all of this done."

Attorney Frank Angel, who is representing the tenant association, said State Parks has reneged on assurances at public meetings to consider allowing tenants to stay, at least until a permanent plan for the park is completed. That plan will take two to three years, parks officials have said.

Angel said State Parks appears to have a "pre-commitment" for everyone to be out by July 1, the same date the Interim plan is scheduled to go into effect. That is "contrary to both relocation law and the California Environmental Quality Act," said Angel.

Relocating now, said Angel, "tells me they will not envision an alternative …that will contemplate the tenants remaining in place."

Tenants are likely to protest if State Parks does not prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for its Interim Management Plan due out in January or if an EIR is prepared but doesn't consider the alternative of delaying relocation until a permanent plan is completed.

State Parks' officials have said the Interim Plan should include only benign or reversible use decisions for the property.

"It is not benign if it has the effect of already displacing the residents," said Angel. It also is inconsistent with tenants agreements in similar cases, such as Crystal Cove in Orange County, and may violate state requirements for affordable housing in the coastal zone, he said.

Angel questioned whether State Parks will ultimately pursue the wetlands restoration plan favored by the Topanga community. State Parks has competing goals for the site including existing plans that call for recreational vehicle sites and other public access facilities.

With current budget cuts, Angel suggested that State Parks needs to show there is funding to remove the structures and to protect the property from dumping and fire starts once it becomes vacant.

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