The Last Egg Man 

Defending his poultry farm, Ken Arno faces off against the Valley’s king of rezoning

Wednesday, Jul 18 2007

THEY SAY GROWTH IS inevitable, and that’s why elected officials are bent on making room by the year 2050 for what some officials estimate will be 9.4 million new residents in the county. But “inevitable” is a truth not necessarily because it’s true, but because it’s repeated so often.

Follow the river of money from multistory housing developers into the campaign coffers of the mayor and Los Angeles City Council, then listen to officials — from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to Council Member Ed Reyes to mayoral appointee and Planning Commissioner Mike Woo — speak of the “inevitability” that Angelenos will live in condos or apartments near bus and rail stations — and reduce their driving.

Yet there’s no guarantee that City Hall’s design for the Valley, based upon so-called smart-growth policies, will be anything short of a congestion disaster. Urban-growth expert Wendell Cox of Public Purpose pointed out in 2001 that cities that pursue smart-growth policies to promote higher density along transit lines see an increase in traffic, pollution and other urban ills.

click to flip through (2) Arno and his political consultants (Photo by Orly Olivier)
  • Arno and his political consultants (Photo by Orly Olivier)

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Recent surveys by the Los Angeles Times, UC Berkeley and Cal Poly Pomona show that few Southern Californians living in the new high-density apartments and condos along transit corridors end up abandoning their cars to get to work — a measly 6 percent.

Smart growth’s powerful proponents, such as Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, insist that commuting to work constitutes fewer than one-quarter or so of car trips made by Angelenos daily. It's all the other car trips — shopping, ferrying kids — that feed gridlock.

Garcetti speculates that in dense new communities with ground-floor shops and people living above, people will largely stay off the roads to shop locally. As Garcetti imagines things, “Maybe you’ve got a dry cleaner or a video store that you can take the elevator to.”

“Maybe” is a big word to hang on the city’s hurried frenzy of redevelopment. So far, smart growth has been a formula for worse traffic — the loudest complaint voiced by neighborhood councils opposing rezoning across the Valley.

In many cases, dense developments in the Valley crop up when neighbors either aren’t aware or don’t care. But recent history shows that when neighborhood councils have spoken up, there’s nothing inevitable about them.

Mitchell Englander, chief of staff for Councilman Greig Smith, whose district includes Arno’s egg farm, says: “Nobody knows more what’s going on block by block than the very people who live there... In 99 percent of the cases, we’ve upheld the neighborhood council decisions.”

Nonetheless, Arno harbors no illusions about the durability of his farm in the face of City Hall’s pro-density climate.

“That could be paranoia speaking,” Arno admits, “but I have a reason to be paranoid.”

KEN ARNO IS ATEDDY BEAR of a man with a big laugh, a short temper and a deep disdain for government corruption. (For decades, he refused to pay federal taxes to, he says, protest the wars and the war profiteers.) He has lived in the Valley since he was 2, and attended nearby Birmingham High School. “This is my neighborhood,” he says.

Around the time he started leasing the 3-acre property in 1988, Arno worked as a smog-check technician. His escape was gardening. Eventually, Arno and his partner, Doreen Radogna, got a few chickens. Explains Arno, “I ended up putting the chicken manure in my garden, which did wonders for the produce.”

In 1994, the county certified his farm, and he headed to the Encino farmers market with a single crate of eggs — selling them all in half an hour. But he began getting drawn into small scrapes with the city after a then-neighbor complained about the noise from a small gaggle of Arno’s geese. “I don’t really blame him for complaining,” Arno reflects. “I just wish he’d come to me.”

The city required him to move the geese farther than 100 feet from all human dwellings, and Arno had to get permits to maintain pigeons and rheas.

“I paid hundreds of dollars in permits,” Arno says. But city officials kept showing up, and he began to see the visits as harassment, if not extortion. Finally, one official told him to cease operating until he purchased a Conditional Use Permit, requiring a fee of several thousand dollars to keep “more than four chickens on 3 acres.”

His response was perhaps not the best choice for dealing with City Hall: Arno started barricading the property, and between 2001 and 2006, the city sporadically made surprise visits to his farm, even sending in an LAPD watch commander — a dustup that resulted in Arno being cited for failing to license his two dogs.

All of that served as a backdrop to Arno’s general antipathy toward the city and helped fan his anger when he learned last year that his next-door neighbor, Hadi M. Safa, had petitioned the city for permission to tear down his own home and subdivide his lot for a four-unit, two-story condo complex.

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