A Sports Field Evaporates

It's 8 o'clock on a Saturday morning, and already the Valley heat is making its afternoon plans known. But on this sprawling expanse of green, with a glittering reservoir visible in the distance, moist grass cools your feet under the sheltering shade of trees, where Geno DeVandry has parked his camp chair and his cooler full of Gatorade. The thump of punted balls, occasional whistle blasts and polite applause and cheers from assembled parents sound in the background as several dozen kids play soccer.

"I wonder what all of the people in those houses up there are going to say when they find out," DeVandry says, pointing to a row of homes on a hill overlooking the ball fields of Balboa Youth Sports Complex in Granada Hills. He is referring to the sad reality that the fields are in their endgame.

The Metropolitan Water District owns the land and leases it for use by kids' baseball and soccer teams. But the utility plans to convert the property into sludge ponds, also known as "evaporation lagoons," where all of the mud, plants and miscellaneous whatnot filtered out of drinking water are spread out and dried before being trucked off to the trash. The scoreboards, goal nets and snack bar that have been used on the land for decades will all be gone sometime around late 2011.

For residents of Granada Hills, the situation is sadly familiar. The community is about as far north of downtown Los Angeles as you can go and still be in L.A., and the feeling of being far away and forgotten can be pervasive here, as can the feeling of being dumped on — quite literally.

"Downtown gets the arts, and we get the garbage!" goes the rallying cry of opponents of Sunshine Canyon, a "landfill" to its operators but a "dump" to defiant, call-a-spade-a-spade neighborhood activists who have fought against the odiferous yet cheerily named trash heap since its expansion in the mid-1990s. Now, residents already frustrated that a significant portion of the area's open land goes to garbage are disconsolate to learn that another big parcel will go to sludge.

It's enough to give a neighborhood a persecution complex — especially since the landfill and the lagoon will be less than two miles apart.

"We already have a lot of things that aren't something anybody wants to live near," says Anne Ziliak, who chairs the Granada Hills Planning and Land Use Management committee. "Now we're getting one more. It's not equitable."

For the uninitiated, it's important to explain that Granada Hills isn't just a mass of piled-up refuse and unsightly sludge.

Across Balboa from the planned treatment facility, rustic O'Melveny Park, the largest of L.A.'s parks after Griffith, offers spectacular views to hikers and frequent glimpses of wild rabbits to delighted children and joggers. The hilly park wraps around Van Gogh Elementary, whose test scores put it near the upper rungs of LAUSD. The school is populated by several kids who live in the neighboring Eichler tract, a high-style suburban idyll that recently won Historic Preservation status for its stellar collection of midcentury-modern homes.

The town's northern reaches have long housed a number of above- and below-the-line industry types who like to put a bit of distance between themselves and Hollywood at the end of their workday. There's some money here, but it's discreet and dispersed. Now and again, punctuating the lines of well-kept homes, a house with peeling paint or a weed-choked car on blocks will make an appearance, just to keep things down-to-earth.

Along with a passionate group of supporters, DeVandry, who has coached soccer for more than 20 years, fought hard to keep the ball fields in Granada Hills.

The problem is that MWD has been piping the drinking-water sludge for years to drying lagoons on Department of Water and Power property, but that arrangement will end in 2014. So MWD says it needs to expand a facility adjacent to the fields, asserting that trucking off the still-wet sludge for drying elsewhere would be cost-prohibitive.

This led to charges that MWD cared more about the money than about kids, and MWD did nothing to help its case for community caring when it released a draft Environmental Impact Report concluding that the planned construction would have no significant impact on recreation. It's a finding worthy of a headline in The Onion: "Removal of Recreation Area Will Have No Impact on Recreation, Giant Organization Says."

When asked to affirm that MWD indeed stood by such a counterintuitive conclusion, Shane Chapman, assistant manager of water systems operations, says, "From a strict legal standpoint, that is our position. From being a member of the community and having a presence there, our position is, 'We're doing everything we can to make sure there will be other ball fields.' "

True, there will be other ball fields, but they won't be quite the same. Certainly the opening of a new recreation area will be a boon to nearby Sylmar, the location where replacement fields will be built, and the area from which a significant number of players will hail.

But the new fields will be something of a step down for the youth leagues, because they will no longer have an exclusive-use contract there. The Sylmar site will function as a public park, meaning the teams will have to share the same amount of space with more people.

"Right now, any child who wants to play can sign up, but it's only for children," explains Sue DeVandry, Geno's wife. "The exclusive-use permit allows us to keep these fields available just for youth sports. That's why we still have grass. Look at the other parks where all these adult teams play ... they've worn down the grass. It's all dirt."

Of course, the biggest drawback to the new location, at least from the locals' point of view, is that it's outside of Granada Hills.

"We don't want to make MWD out to be the big bad guy, because they have responsibilities also. We know that water is a priority to our city," DeVandry says.

He is also appreciative of MWD's cooperation in offering a series of lease extensions, the most recent of which will keep the ball fields open until the new property is ready. But DeVandry says this with the air of a man who has lost something he loves.

After all, this is where all five of his kids grew up, and where he met his closest friends.

"You go to their kids' graduations, you go to their weddings, because you grew up with them.

"I'm a churchgoing person. But that facility is almost like a church because we've all become so close. How would you feel about your church being taken away, and you're not really left with anything else?"


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