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Cleaning Up Tujunga Wash 

Making nature safe for equestrians

Wednesday, May 6 1998
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Driving up the 210 from the Eastside to Lakeview Terrace, you get that suddenly-I'm-lost anxiety. Just where am I? And just where is this place? The foothills between La Canada and Tujunga Wash seem as grand, vacant and imposing as any mountain range. Thanks to El Nino, they're still wearing that late Southern California spring green, shot with the bronze and purple highlights of wildflowers.

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All this within our city's widespread limits? Even the house-studded Verdugo Hills around Tujunga (for all their sinister name - meaning "executioner") were paradisiacal in their April green. But a few more miles down the freeway, the politics of the long-stalled Red Tail golf course in the Tujunga Wash were all too down-to-earth.

As you may recall, the City Council last July voted 10-4 to shelve the 400-acre east Valley project. Ecological considerations were the given reasons; another was the vivid opposition to the project by Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union Local 11. No, this had nothing to do with Local 11's protesting future plans to use nonunion cooks and waiters at the Red Tail's 19th Hole. What drove the union was a simmering feud with Japan's Kajima Corp., with which it's been brawling over the organization of the New Otani Hotel staff since what feels like the first Roosevelt administration. Although the local's leadership professed last year that their opposition to the golf course was on behalf of the environment, Kajima has a lien on Red Tail. So, just as the local opposed another Kajima project, the Belmont Learning Complex, blocking Red Tail meant striking a blow at Kajima. Which injury Kajima sustained when the council turned the project down July 22.

As sometimes happens, however, things bounce back. Last week the council - convening in one of its peculiar field-trip hearings at the Lakeview Terrace Recreation Center - again voted on the golf course, and again the vote was 10-4. But this time, it voted the other way - for approval.

Now, as potential ecological disasters go, Red Tail looks like a good project. After much patient negotiation via the offices of Council Member Joel Wachs, the actual size of the course was reduced to 160 acres. It is to be surrounded by a 242-acre nature habitat with trails for walking and riding. The rare and endangered slender horn spine flower gets a special reservation area of its own, in the middle of the other preserve. Remains of an ancient Native America village will get saved. Nearly 80 other conditions were met by the developers.

Opponents, however, say that the Tujunga Wash's near-natural state would be ravaged by turning so much of it into fairways and sand traps. Also questioned was what the tons of pesticides and chemical plant foods needed to nurture the course's sod might do to the life of the surrounding preserve. These are key environmental questions, and since the Tujunga Wash represents so substantial a chunk of Los Angeles' remaining natural landscape, you might have expected to hear some Sierra Club members at the meeting, making a protest. Of course, Tujunga is pretty far from the Westside, so maybe they got lost. Come to think of it, even the officials of that nature-loving old Local 11 didn't say anything this time around.

It's all moot, now. Unless the Army Corps of Engineers files a late objection (because heavy rains have changed the course of the local stream since the site plan was originally drawn up), golf has come from behind to win the day.

Here's how that happened: Late last summer, the developers responded to the council rejection by filing a $215 million illegal-taking claim against the city for denying their right to develop. Then the developers won the first round in court. So the city attorney and council - recalling the $4 million loss the city sustained in the similar Warner Ridge case - began to chicken out. Another factor in the switcheroo was the likelihood that if the developer's plans were rejected, the wash's next developer might not be so ecologically friendly. A further goad was that, unlike last July, the majority of the public present at the April Lakeview Terrace meeting was strongly pro-golf course.

You had to be there to appreciate just what created so much fresh local support for the project. It certainly wasn't a sudden local vogue for golf. I may have missed something, but I don't recall any proponent's saying he or she wanted Red Tail built because it would make it easier to tee up. In fact, many of the proponents, far from being golfers, belonged to the local horsy set (the meeting site was surrounded by public corrals, and in slow moments, your attention was called away by the sight of all those handsome fillies, flicking flies with their tails).

It didn't take long to get the drift: The local gentry were boosting the project, not despite the damage it would do to the wash, but because of it. Red Tail would indeed eradicate much of Tujunga's present wilderness. And this was okay with them, because those scrublands, in addition to accommodating lots of birds and wild animals, are now habitat for a number of homeless individuals, of whom the equestrians are seriously frightened.

As one speaker put it, "It isn't safe for a woman to ride there now." I wondered, How is that? Do the homeless have a mounted posse? If not, why not just carry a saber when you go galloping?

But of course, it's a lot easier to eliminate the savage habitat of those poor folk of the bush than to come to terms with them. Fore! Catch you at the 19th Hole.

Crack in the Tarmac

Just as the local opposition to the proposed 63 percent expansion of Los Angeles International Airport was beginning to build, hints of fault lines in Mayor Dick Riordan's campaign to sell the unpopular project appeared last week.

What seems to be causing a rift is nothing less than our mayor's unslakable craving for cronyism. As a result of some rare critical coverage in the Times, the mayor apparently decided to ease out the professional PR firm of Edelman Public Relations, which contracted with the Department of Airports for $1.6 million to help sell the expansion project. Instead, someone named Barbara Johnson, who seems to be well-connected with the regular Democratic power structure and to have been involved in some electoral campaigns, will get the job.

The expansion-opposition leader, Council Member Ruth Galanter, cried "foul" when she heard that a city agency was already hiring campaigners for a controversial city project that has yet to be reviewed by the council. Yet this shift is probably great news for airport opponents: Edelman has a reputation for competence, and the last Johnson campaign I recall was Ira Reiner's final hurrah in 1992.

The move also suggests that the mayor, by second-guessing his own hand-picked Airport Commission, is undermining the authority that's primarily responsible for selling the expansion. Airport Commission president Dan Garcia was rumored to be particularly miffed by the mayor's PR change order.

Garcia, as you may recall, was also stung by the Mayor's Office back in December. Around Christmas, all city commissioners received a polite order not to speak at the charter-commission hearings without clearing their remarks in advance with the Mayor's Office. As it just so happened, though, Garcia was the only sitting commissioner who'd actually spoken to either charter body at the time.

Kick Thy Own Self

"The fortunes made from carving up [the San Fernando Valley] mostly went over the hill to the 'real' Los Angeles . . . Largely, in this story, the Valley has played rube and victim."

Thus Times columnist Robert Jones - in the highest of dudgeons - last Sunday cast the city's disgruntled ultramontane quarter in its favorite role as victim of the callow-handed downtown business clique. (He was complaining specifically of Los Angeles' reluctance to share its water supply with the putative Valley breakaway city.)

What Jones somehow forgot to mention was that the main downtown entity to whom those "fortunes" accrued was the Chandler family, whose newspaper was also the major promoter both of the Owens Valley water project and of the San Fernando Valley's consequent development. This, of course, was the same newspaper that now employs Jones.

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