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Council Ousts Ostrich 

A farewell to Valley farm life

Wednesday, Mar 4 1998
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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.

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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."

Let 'em Drive Sports Cars

Last October, this column told how Los Angeles Marathon president William Burke, during his Labor Day weekend vintage-sports-car race, managed to stick the city with over $357,000 in event expenses. Of course, he had help from the dunderhead City Council that agreed to pay the costs after Burke's proxy, Councilman Richard Alatorre, promised they would be less than $5,000.

The naive among us might have expected Burke someday to return the gesture by which the taxpayers unwittingly supported his costly, specialized-audience car event. Perhaps by doing the city an expensive favor in return.

Someday, maybe; but not today. Certainly not when it comes to Burke's willingness to repeat his 1996 offer of free public transportation on Marathon Sunday. This eased the Marathon's usual evil traffic that year and made the air more healthful for runners. So the MTA board proposed to repeat the plan this year - but Burke would have none of it.

In a February 20 letter to MTA transit planner James de la Loza (cc'd to all council members and county supervisors), Burke acknowledged that in 1996, the "Marathon's sponsor, American Honda Motor Co., paid MTA approximately $135,000 to provide transportation on Marathon Sunday."

But, Burke continued, "Since then, we have elected not to do this and I want to go on the record that to my knowledge no one at this organization has requested this effort that you are currently undertaking. While we greatly support alleviating traffic throughout the city and improving air quality on race day, we cannot support this effort at this time because of the economic impact."

Note that Burke appears to be speaking for not just his own closely held and implicitly very profitable marathon company, but for Honda Motors as well. The implication is that any funding Honda hands over to the MTA for free transit won't accrue to Burke's profits: That's what he must mean by "economic impact."

Of course, $135,000 is only about a third of what the city paid last September in unreimbursed DOT and LAPD expenditures. That, you'll recall, was for the old-car race that snarled downtown Los Angeles for close to a week. It also pumped a small industrial revolution's worth of leaded hydrocarbon fumes into the downtown air. Compared to that operation, a Marathon day's stalled L.A. traffic doesn't really add up to much pollution for runners' lungs, does it?

And anyway, it's not as though William A. Burke were the chairman of the Air Quality Management District, with an anti-pollution reputation to protect, is it? What's that you say? He is?

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