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Seeds of Secrecy 

Behind the scenes, Mayor V’s been negotiating the purchase of the South Central Farm

Wednesday, Mar 8 2006

EARLY IN THE QUESTION-AND-ANSWER part of the South Central Farm support committee’s weekly meeting last Sunday, a white-haired and clearly seasoned activist asked to hear the “backup plan” in the event that sheriff’s deputies moved in to evict the farmers squatting on the 14-acre site at Alameda and 41st streets.

“The back-up plan,” said organizer Rufina Juarez, with slight indignation and a pause for added effect, “is not to leave the land.”

The assembled roared their approval.

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Organizer Tezozomoc sounded the call: “We’ve been here for three years and I still don’t think it’s a done deal. Do you think it’s a done deal?”

“No!” the group cheered.

Reality checked in this week at the South Central Farm, which is officially known as the South Central Community Garden. In a matter of days the farmers and their supporters went from preparing for the real possibilities of forced eviction and civil disobedience, to getting word that the farm would live freely for at least another week, or longer, if, as the L.A. Weekly has learned, a deal involving the purchase of the land can be worked out.

A hearing in L.A. Superior Court could be held as early as Monday to consider appeals to the farmers’ eviction notice, which was first posted on the farm’s gates on March 1. In recent weeks, Tezozomoc and other farm activists have focused their ire on Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who, as the farm’s supporters point out, speaks often about a vision for a greener Los Angeles. They have heckled Villaraigosa at public events and even at his official residence, Getty House, where protesters say Villaraigosa used the phrase “How dare you” in chastising them for crashing an event there. Villaraigosa, during one of those protests, has maintained that the city simply does not have the $18 million needed to buy the land.

Behind the scenes, the mayor’s administration has been scrambling to negotiate a deal that would allow a third party to buy the property from developer Ralph Horowitz. A likely deal would involve paying Horowitz $50,000 a month for the option to buy his land, while negotiations for a sale continue.

Trust for Public Land area director Larry Kaplan said the nonprofit organization has already come up with $11 million to purchase the garden, and is optimistic that it can gather the remaining $5 million to $7 million — depending on the final purchase price.

According to sources familiar with the talks, the Harbor Commission, which once owned the property and was a defendant in a lawsuit over the land, reviewed the case behind closed doors on February 15, and again on March 1. The commission agreed with the proposal to pay Horowitz over the next few months to make up for his inability to use his property during negotiations. Kaplan confirmed that the Trust for Public Land would put in $20,000 a month, while the Port of Los Angeles would contribute $30,000.

“We’re pretty confident that we can consummate a deal if we get as far as we’ve gotten,” Kaplan said.

The mayor, in turn, has sought to win a promise from Horowitz that he would preserve the garden over the short term — even if Horowitz evicted the farmers and padlocked the entrance — while the Trust for Public Land tries to close the fund-raising gap.

The final card the city could play is an eminent-domain action — taking the property from Horowitz for the second time since 1986. Villaraigosa aides have only explored the idea, according to one source, but even as a mere thought it is wrought with a bizarre irony.

THE TALKS ARE THE LATEST CHAPTER in an entangled 20-year saga over the property, an oasis in an otherwise bleak landscape of castaway warehouses and industrial lots.

Horowitz, who lives in Brentwood and operates the real-estate investment company Horowitz Group, bought the property in 1980. Using the power of eminent domain, the city of Los Angeles forced Horowitz to sell the land in 1986 so it could be used for a waste-to-energy facility.

The project was greeted with outrage by activists in South Los Angeles, who convinced the City Council to defeat it. By 1994, when the land was transferred to the Harbor Department, the property had been established as a community garden operated by the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, located across the street. The establishment of the garden was part of efforts to create more green space and community resources in the aftermath of the 1992 L.A. riots.

The Harbor Department viewed the land as a potential piece of its plan to develop a 20-mile freight corridor between the port and industrial rail yards near downtown. But in 2002, with the land serving as neither a freight route nor a waste facility, Horowitz sued the city to get his land back.

The port was the defendant in that case and reached a settlement in 2003 that allowed Horowitz to buy the land back for $5 million, as long as he deeded 2.6 acres of the land to the city for use as soccer and recreation fields. He has said he wants to build a warehouse there.

The South Central farmers responded by suing the city over the settlement, saying it was a waste of public funds.

That’s when the battle between Horowitz and the South Central Farmers really took off. Convinced they had a right to the land because they have farmed it since 1992, the farmers say they will not leave. ¡Aqui estamos y no nos vamos! is their rallying call — We’re here, and we’re not leaving.

Holding title to the property, Horowitz has argued that as owner of the land he can do what he pleases with it. The courts agreed. Once the farmers exhausted their legal options, he moved ahead with the now-stalled eviction.

Adding another layer of complication to the fight, Horowitz late last month sued the farmers for almost $730,000 in damages.

THE BATTLE OVER THE FUTURE of the farm has galvanized environmental, food, urban-planning and Latino activists from all over the city and elsewhere, all of whom see the land as a flash point for broader environmental-justice issues.

“We won this land in the sweat and blood of our people in the 1992 uprising,” Dele Ailemen, a native of Nigeria and an organizer with the South Central Coalition, said at the farm on Sunday. In an interview later, he added: “It’s a central point for environmentalists, for environmental justice and for those who are interested in a greener and more healthy Los Angeles.”

The farmers themselves, mostly Spanish-dominant immigrants from Mexico and Central America, continue to toil on the land and hold a weekly market as the wranglings brew all around them.

One of them, Maria Gonzalez, 70, said on Sunday she is mostly unaware of all the details of what is happening. She says she can’t imagine not having the square plot at the farm where she and her husband, Aurelio, grow cabbage, onion, guava, flowers and other plants.

“This where I set up and cook,” Gonzalez said, gesturing to a small electric stove she keeps in a hut she and her husband built on their plot. A tiny altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe sits atop a wooden cabinet filled with plates and bowls.

The Gonzalezes live in North Hollywood. Maria added that at times, when she is overcome with nerves and needs to get out of her house, she asks her husband to drive her to the farm. She stopped herself from crying as she talked, holding her hands up to her mouth.

“I hope on God that they don’t throw us out.”

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