By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
I woke with a start. The Tuesday council meeting had been droning along with mesmeric predictability. There was a six-figure transfer from the Storm Water Abatement Fund. Some General Plan updates. A Request for Proposal for an L.A. Triathlon. A list of new "Technical Corrections for the Plumbing Code." My chin drooped. Unconsciousness beckoned appealingly.
Then my ears pricked up. If I didn't know better, I mused, I'd swear everyone was talking about ostriches.
In fact, that's exactly what they were doing. David and Monica Mohilef, "trustees of the Mohilef Family Trust," were being brought to book, as it were, for wanting too many ratites (at first, I heard "rate hikes") in their secluded Chatsworth enclave.
Ratites, as I'm sure you know, are "ostriches, emus and rheas": very large flightless birds with a sternum bone, my dictionary says. Otherwise, they evolved on three different continents, so their taxonomic kinship is more apparent than real.
They are indeed big. And, people were saying, they make an awful racket and smell. "They scream and stink," said Councilman Hal Bernson, whose district includes Monteria Estates - a gated development at the north end of Winnetka Avenue, where a white board fence in various states of repair encloses grassy knolls, old barns, willow trees and huge homes. Bernson said the minimum zoned acreage there is two acres, but many properties are larger. You inferred from Bernson's demeanor that the Mohilefs' little Monteria agribiz had too long brought too many complaints to his office.
Indeed yes - nearly five years' worth. The operation was "foul, obnoxious and stomach-turning," wrote neighbor Irene Beeler, back in 1994. She added, "At night, there is an almost constant pounding noise. You can hear it with your doors and windows closed. Either this is the noise the males make or it's the sound of them pounding their heads against the plywood enclosures . . ."
Dozens more letters agreed, though the Mohilefs weren't without their local defenders. Another neighbor, Dolores St. Amour, said their property "was in excellent condition and very clean." I should say that to me, as close as I could get without trespassing during a personal visit, it smelled just like the rest of Chatsworth.
In the recent words of the city's Board of Zoning Appeals, however, those ratites "jeopardized or endangered the public health or safety . . . constitute a public nuisance and [have] resulted in nuisance activities."
Earlier, the board had ruled that the Mohilefs had to cull their flock from nearly 200 to a mere 24 birds. Now, the council has rejected the Mohilefs' last appeal to rebuild their brood to its original size. What's more, the Mohilefs now have to clean up after those birds every day. (As it happens, ostriches and rheas are the only birds that urinate and defecate separately.)
According to the Auburn-based United Ratite Co-op's Web page, ratite raising is a growing business. Emus stand 6 feet tall and weigh 150 pounds: big enough. Ostriches, however, are the world's largest bird: 8 feet tall and up to 330 pounds - twice the heft of a middling white-tail deer. While they're largely peaceful and eat mostly plants and bugs (and Blue Mountain ostrich feed), they can have the "What you lookin' at?" disposition - and possess the foot claws and 43-mph moves - of a Jurassic velociraptor. If they get loose, they can be trouble.
There is, of course, much to be said for the Big Birds. Their tasty and abundant meat has two-thirds the calories of skinless chicken, the site tells me; their skin shows up on $250 cowboy boots, their plumes have graced many a hat. But modern consumer demand hasn't yet matched supply, and in Texas, I read, ostrich farms are going bust. I do hope the Mohilefs have a big freezer and lots of recipes.
I could not reach the family (or their attorney) for comment, but the planning staff reported that the Mohilefs had indeed already culled their population down from 300 ostriches and emus (plus assorted goats and parakeets). Ironically, their costly 7 acres are properly zoned for agriculture, and they have a valid county poultry permit. Just 20 years ago, theirs might have been an exemplary operation in that neck of the Valley. Now it's a nuisance.
Go back another 20 or 30 years, and small-farm independence was a fashionable movement: Real estate pages abounded with "Be Your Own Boss" ads for North Valley minigroves, micro egg ranches - even, an older friend recalls, some ostrich farms. This was the heritage of Thomas Jefferson's idealization of the small farmer. But as housing moved in, there came a confrontation as old as civilization.
Some of those farms smelled like orange groves and some like chicken manure, but suburbanites could be found to complain about both odors. Tract homes look cute near farmland, but in the long run, new neighbors' noses are always more judgmental than their eyes. So nuisance ordinances got legislated, then invoked, and, with the added factor of rising land prices, farmlands went under.
As cities expand, this process repeats itself, eternally. Perhaps the real pathos of agriculture's retreat from the population it feeds is known only to the shrinking number of people who've plowed a straight furrow across their own land. There's still plowing and planting at Pierce College, and some Valley denizens still raise citrus and a few horses and chickens. But with the council's denial of the Mohilef appeal, we may have reached the last page of the romantic tale of living off your land in the San Fernando Valley: not with the befitting bucolic sadness, but with a traditionally Philistine "good riddance."