July 10, 2020

“We Are All Stewards of the Land”—Yaroslavsky Looks Back and to the Future


Before leaving office, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky speaks out on the Santa Monica Mountains, his feelings about Topanga and Sandy Koufax.


“We Are All Stewards of the Land”—Yaroslavsky Looks Back and to the Future

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky in his office with a ‘bobblehead’ of baseball legend Sandy Koufax. It was Zev’s only real regret as Supervisor that he was unable to accept the opportunity to sit next to Koufax at a Dodger’s game.

For 20 years, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has spoiled his beloved stepchild, Topanga Canyon.

In 1994, Yaroslavsky was elected to the five-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, representing the western part of the County and a constituency of two million people. He is now completing his fifth term as the Board’s Third District representative. Because of term limits, he will leave office as of November 30, 2014.

During his tenure, Yaroslavsky’s impact on the community of Topanga and the Santa Monica Mountains has been vast and effective.

He authored the 1996 Proposition A park bond, which resulted in the preservation of a broad swath of rural open space and the development of urban parks throughout the County.

Yaroslavsky helped author the 2000 North Area Plan to limit development in the Santa Monica Mountains and pushed through the Santa Monica North Area Ridgeline Ordinance in 2005 to prohibit development on significant mountain ridgelines.

As supervisor, his influence also helped preserve the Ahmanson Ranch property in eastern Ventura County and helped obtain the funds to purchase King Gillette Ranch, a 588-acre area in the heart of the Malibu Creek watershed.

Overall, the land that has been saved is now almost 20,000 acres of pristine chaparral, oak tree forests and riparian habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains.

After nearly a decade of hard work, Yaroslavsky pushed through the Local Coastal Program (LCP) that was unanimously approved on April 10 by the California Coastal Commission to streamline the approval process of allowed development and limit development in the coastal areas of the Third District.

During his tenure, his outstanding environmental voting record earned him the honor of being named Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation “Citizen of the Year” in 2012 at the group’s annual banquet in Malibou Lake.

Working with Topanga volunteers, Yaroslavsky spearheaded the Los Angeles County Emergency Management Plan and the all-canyon drills that are held annually in collaboration with the Sheriff’s Department, L.A. County Fire Department, T-CEP, Arson Watch and other local volunteer emergency first-responders.

During a career in public life spanning nearly four decades, Yaroslavsky has been at the forefront of Los Angeles County’s biggest issues, from transportation to the environment, health care and the Arts.


The Topanga Messenger had the privilege of sitting down with Yaroslavsky and asking him for his insights into what the job of County Supervisor entails.

Topanga Messenger—Looking back 20 years, what about the unincorporated areas within the Third District that have significantly benefited from your outstanding governance, especially in Topanga and the Santa Monica Mountains?

Zev Yaroslavsky
—The Santa Monica Mountains are a precious jewel in the natural resource mosaic; it is one of the most beautiful urban and suburban parks and natural terrain of any metropolitan area of the United States. When I became supervisor in 1994, in my first speech, one of the promises I made for half a dozen or so objectives was to bring rational land use practices to the area, to prevent Calabasas or Agoura Hills type of developments and preserve the ridgelines, valleys and rivulets that run through the oak woodlands, the sycamore groves; this is a very special place.

In 1994 this area was at a crossroads. Developers had lots of ideas about developing large swaths of land, cutting off ridgelines, filling in valleys, building major subdivisions with hundreds of homes, and we were at a point in time in the mid-1990s where we were going to take a stand and really preserve the mountains or we were going to see them nibbled away, one ridgeline, one valley at a time. So my policy was to move swiftly, to develop land use policies to allow the terrain to dictate the development and not let the development dictate the terrain.

If you can’t build a home on a ridgeline, then maybe the home shouldn’t be built at all. I have found those who own the ridgeline also own the slopes below that ridgeline.

What about other protections for the Santa Monica Mountains? What measures have been taken to preserve the land?

We developed the North Area Plan in 2000, which is a remarkable piece of legislation for natural resource preservation in preventing ridgeline development. We require extensive permitting for any massive grading. We protected the woodlands, some of which are 100 years old. We made a two-pronged attack, one was to acquire as much land as we could and make it part of the National Park and State Park systems.

For the 19 years I have been here, we have acquired approximately 17,000 acres of land through purchase or dedication; we have had some very generous landowners donate land to the public sector—17,000 acres is something all of us should be proud of.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, Sheila Kuehl, State. Sen. Fran Pavley, (D. Agoura Hills) [former Assemblymember] Julia Brownley, Congressman Henry Waxman, Congressman Brad Sherman, all played a role along the way in helping put this together. I think it’s still a work in progress, but I think the agenda I laid out for myself in December 1994, has been significantly achieved even though there are other properties that need to be acquired, and ridgelines that need to be protected.

Now that the California Coastal Commission has approved it, how do you feel the Local Coastal Program (LCP) will impact the mountains?

Well, first of all, the improvement is that we will have a Local Coastal Program for the first time in the history of the Santa Monica Mountains. State law requires a Local Coastal Program. [Without one] there has been a lot of haphazard development; it has really been anarchy, because I think we have been able to corral a lot of the anarchy, but people say, “Why did he get to build a big house on the ridge and I don’t get to build a big house on the ridge?”

How else would the LCP limit development in the Santa Monica Mountains?

There has been haphazard development in the mountains. We are trying to regularize it and be more strict, not to prevent people from building a home, but when they do build a home it should be complimentary to the topography. It needs to fit with the terrain and not destroy the natural resources because once you destroy them you can’t replace them. You can’t let people go hog wild. One subdivision was already precooked before I got here. I tried to stop them but I couldn’t, and now there is one north of the freeway, but that’s it; they are remnants of the old zoning practices.

With the North Area Plan and the LCP there will be rigorous consistency applied so when you develop you respect the terrain you are in, the very thing that attracted you to build a house in the Santa Monica Mountains should not lead to the destruction of the very environment you are in. Leave the environment for the next generation, so 17,000 acres is a huge deal, a huge achievement for county, state and federal government.

It’s been a real partnership with the National Park Service; the State Park Services, the local residents, stakeholders and cities that we have partnered with—Agoura Hills, Westlake Village, Calabasas and Malibu. It has been one of the really rewarding parts of representing the Santa Monica Mountains; we all leave our seals on it. We are all stewards of the mountains and we all found ways to solve problems and create the opportunity to buy King Gillette Ranch.

The County couldn’t pay for it all by itself; the State couldn’t buy it all by themselves, so we all got into a room to talk about it. We needed $31 million. There are countless examples of this, properties big and small, 3,000-plus acres saved for this and future generations, so the Santa Monica Mountains is a big priority for me.

Last year turned out to be an all-consuming priority with the LCP as a major objective of mine; it’s something I have been working on for a decade, I want to get it done while I am still here. It’s a good plan; it’s a solid plan. We worked with the stakeholders—from Heal the Bay, the Coastal Action Network, Pepperdine University and the Las Virgenes Homeowner’s Federation to Fran Pavley, Assemblyman Richard Bloom, the equestrian stakeholders...and let’s not forget the environmentalists—all-coalescing behind and it’s a very solid plan.


Do you consider Topanga the “Crown Jewel” of your district?

I’m talking to the Topanga Messenger, so I guess it is the jewel in the crown.

Fortunately for Topanga, it’s the most populous unincorporated area I have, so I have an incentive: they get my undivided attention.

I’ve loved Topanga ever since I was in high school and college. It’s a unique community and what makes it unique is not just the beauty of the people but of the area. It’s an eclectic group of people, who have a wide variety of points of view artistically, politically and otherwise, but it's a community that comes together.

Fortunately, there have been no fires in Topanga since 1993—[the year before] I became supervisor—but it has been 21 years on election night. Since then, there have been a lot of storms; flooding has been a problem in Topanga with Topanga Creek; landslides, when Topanga Canyon Blvd. slid and was closed for a number of weeks. It could have been months but we were able to accelerate it by incentivizing the contractor and he actually did the restoration in record time.

We appreciate your incredible, ongoing support for Topanga; what can we expect will happen when you leave office?

We have had a great relationship with the people of Topanga; we have invested heavily in the ball field at the Community Center; T-CEP, where we invested, easily, hundreds of thousands of dollars if not more to help institutionalize them because they are such an important part of the disaster preparedness mosaic of the Santa Monica Mountains along with Arson Watch.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Topanga has been spared major disasters for the past 20 years. It’s a major result of efficiency in educating the community in how to manage and protect themselves against fire and flooding. If there is a fire and flood, Arson Watch is out there with binoculars to respond on red flag days, looking for any sign of smoke; they have spotted smoke on any number of occasions and the fire department has come out. This year we had that fire on Old Canyon at Red Rock. They put it out. These things are [because of] the investment we made in Super Scoopers and year-round helicopters. If we hadn’t gotten to that fire in Old Topanga as fast as we did, in another 15 to 20 minutes it could have been very close to being out of control.

What in your opinion makes Topanga unique?

What can I say about Topanga? I love Topanga. Whenever I go to Topanga for any purpose whatsoever, it’s like a vacation to get out there in the chilled air at night, the flowers and trees. I think about the Theatricum quite a bit.

The Topanga Library. That library is special, the whole design of it with the artwork. Some people didn’t want the library; the old-timers thought it would bring too much civilization into Topanga but Topanga has changed. There are more families here now where 30-40 years ago it wasn’t such a place to raise kids because of its remoteness. Now it’s a very used Library in the community that was a $15 million dollar project. It’s a very expensive Library but it’s going to last a long time. I’m partial to it, that and the Malibu Library are two of the most beautiful settings.

I feel I have a special relationship with Topanga; I wish I could live there. The problem is I can’t stand rattlesnakes; it’s not a place where I would feel comfortable but I love it.

I haven’t met people in Topanga that I didn’t really like even though we have had some contentious community meetings over the years on particular issues. It’s one of the most special communities there is in the entire County of Los Angeles, maybe even the entire country.

Topanga is known nationwide. It’s not just a Santa Monica Mountains phenomenon. People around the country know Topanga. There’s creativity there, highly intelligent people, highly involved within the community. Whatever the population is there, they all think they can do the job better than me; it’s fun to represent a community like that.

How much does your Senior Deputy Susan Nissman have in pointing more attention toward Topanga?

Well, Susan Nissman is a very special woman; she has been active in the community for decades. I hired her when I first took office and she asked me what am I going to do with Topanga and the Santa Monica Mountains? She’s done a great job and thanks to her knowledge of the community, it has made it a lot easier for me to take positions and know where to place resources; she’s been a huge asset to me and to the Topanga community.

You opened the County Field Office in Calabasas, did that represent a particular commitment to the local communities?

The Calabasas office will remain intact, hopefully, through another administration. The Fire Department office, Building and Safety, the Public Works offices are all located there; it’s a one-stop shop. The Santa Monica Mountains is where my unincorporated area is. In the old days the Fire Department was in Malibu, so I imagine the new Supervisor will find it’s really a great operation there.

Are you publicly endorsing a candidate for Supervisor?

I have not made a decision yet; I have not endorsed anyone up until now. I know major candidates and one of the three major candidates, John Durand, is a councilman from West Hollywood. I have known him reasonably well and he’s talented. I have known Sheila [Kuehl] for more that 20 years, since she went into the Assembly and then the Senate; most people know she represented the western part of the County. ­I have done a lot of work with her, on environmental issues, particularly. And Bobby Shriver, I have worked with him on homeless issues as a city councilman from Santa Monica. They are both very smart, very intelligent people, very dynamic. In different ways they would each make a considerable contribution to the County.

How would you sum up your terms as Supervisor?

It’s been a great privilege to serve the community as it has the rest of my district. I am partial to Topanga because it is so unique, so special—businesses are special, stores are unique, the cultural aspects of Topanga are special and unique, and the artistry that comes out of that Canyon is very special, both physical art and musical art. The Theatricum is a treasure; it's not Disney Hall, it’s not Hollywood Bowl, but it produces as many quality productions as any other part of the County. It’s been a privilege and I want to thank the people of Topanga for welcoming a city dweller like me to come in and represent them. I hope I have done well by them; I think I have. I won’t be a stranger when I am gone. I would like to come back and spend more time instead of just passing through.


So, do you have any regrets or feel there is anything left undone as Supervisor?

I don’t have a lot of regrets. My only regret is that I once turned down an opportunity to sit next to Sandy Koufax at a Dodger game. I honored a prior commitment—it was honorable but stupid. And Koufax was one of my sports heroes growing up; you don’t get an opportunity to chat with him very long or very often. If I have a regret that is it.

I don’t have any public policy regrets because what is the point of having regrets? You make decisions, most of them are the right decisions, occasionally you make a bad call. There’s no point other than learning from them and there’s no point in dwelling on them. My friends ask if I have any regrets about not running for mayor and I say why would I? I didn’t run for mayor in 1989. I focused on and ended up having the opportunity to be a County Supervisor where I got a lot more done than I would have as mayor, ego gratifying as it needs to be for some politicians.

The opportunity to have influence over health care policy; over transportation; helping to restore the fiscal integrity of the County itself throughout its bankruptcy of the ‘90s; arts and culture, which has been a primary focus of mine—the Disney Concert Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, the County Museum of Art—these are all things that, if I had done any one of them, I would have called it a successful career.

I had an opportunity to shape this County on a whole lot of fronts and what regret could I possibly have other than not sitting next to Sandy Koufax at a ballgame?

How would you sum up 20 years as Supervisor?

I have no regrets, and a lot of things that I am proud of. The only thing I regret, looking forward, is there are some things that are left unfinished.

All good things must come to an end, and I won’t have an opportunity to keep doing these things, but 40 years as an elected official (when you count the City) is more than enough for any person in this office. It deserves to have a new occupant; I am a renter, not an owner. The voters have elected me 11 times to office, for City Council and Board of Supervisors.

They have been very supportive of me and very forgiving. I have made mistakes and [they have been] very appreciative when I have done good things. It’s been a great career that I never expected to last this long, so I am quite satisfied.

­I am on to a new chapter that we have yet to see what it is. I’ll do another interview with you once I’ve decided.