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What's My Canine?

So there we were at Petco of Encino on a summer morning with our chocolate standard poodle at an open audition for You Lie Like a Dog, the comedy game show on Animal Planet. Louie, who dances a shaky minuet if properly guided, seemed like a shoo-in. It suddenly occurred to us, however, that we also own a tuxedo cat that sits on my shoulder like an Eyewitness News camera. So we dropped Louie off at home and went back with Vinnie the Kittiecam: With our hand tucked under his chin, Vinnie zooms in and out like a camera. We figured that would be the last of it — until the talent executive called and told us that the producer loved Vinnie, and would I care to be a contestant. And please, don’t shave that goatee.

The day of the shoot at the Las Palmas Studios, we learned the premise of You Lie Like a Dog: Three contestants (myself and two impostors) face a panel of comics (Edd Hall from The Tonight Show, Victoria Jackson from ’80s SNL and Greg Behrendt), who question us in an attempt to discover the real pet owner. Whoever managed to fool a panelist would collect the money — a small amount, but hey.

Backstage I met the two impostors — a couple of young standup comics. Not coincidentally, we all had goatees. I introduced them to Vinnie, who, terrified, dove under the sofa. As we waited, I mused whether it wouldn’t be painfully obvious that this balding 40-something was the Real McCoy. The two young impostors, while wonderful, didn’t seem like they could keep a houseplant alive.

On the set, the questions began. “Cary,” asked Edd Hall, “where did you get your shirt?” “At a now-defunct boutique on Melrose,” I replied. More questions (few of them about cats) flew. Impostor No. 2 attempted to demonstrate “Kittiecam.” Vinnie mostly sat on his pedestal, closely monitored by animal wranglers. Finally, the comic panelists offered their hypotheses of Vinnie’s ownership. “I know it’s not Cary,” said Hall, “‘because I’ve never seen him on Melrose.” I fooled two of ’em, and made away with a couple of bills.

These days we sit at home, waltz occasionally with poodles, and await offers from Friskies to stream in.

—Cary Baker

HOT ZONE

OffBeat was sitting at home last month, when the phone rang. Jonathan Parfrey, of the Los Angeles branch of Physicians for Social Responsibility, was on the line. “Aerojet’s on fire!” he blurted out. As longtime reporters on hazardous contamination at the defense-contracting giant’s Chino Hills installation, we, of course, were interested. We turned on the TV to see images of the blaze moving up the facility’s northern buffer zone — the same place where the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) last year identified traces of the poisonous incendiary chemicals Royal Dem olition Explosive (RDX) and High Melting Explosive (HMX).

“RDX is a highly combustible white powder that can get into the lungs and cause seizures,” said Parfrey. “HMX, used in nuclear devices, plastic explosives and rocket fuel, is a mega-nasty concoction that explodes violently at high temperatures.” We were also aware that levels of the rocket-fuel oxidizer perchlorate in the creek at Aerojet’s perimeter were nearly five times higher than the state danger limit. Frantic, we hit the phones, and eventually reached San Bernardino County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty. He told us that his department had no idea of the hazards at the site. He also said that the men and women on the fire line were not wearing respirators.

As Brierty recounted to us later, he immediately ordered a change in tactics. “I called the incident commander and said, ‘Do not send anybody into that facility with the intention of cutting a fire line, fighting fire or protecting those structures,’” he said. With the help of water-dropping aircraft, the flames were beaten back. Aerojet, which did not return phone calls for comment, along with the DTSC, later claimed that the RDX and HMX were buried too deep to pose a problem. But last week, the L.A.-based Committee To Bridge the Gap wrote a letter asking Governor Gray Davis to order state regulatory agencies to review the adequacy of fire protection at facilities that have hazardous contamination on site. The group also asked that new regulations and/or legislation be enacted that would require prior notification to fire agencies of on-site contamination in soil and vegetation. —Michael Collins

VANISHING BEACH-SHACK CULTURE

Some of the last remaining affordable housing, not to mention an oldtime crabshack-style restaurant, along L.A.'s coastline may be lost under a land deal that is being brokered by a controversial non-profit group.

The American Land Conservancy (ALC) was investigated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of the Inspector General for improprieties on a $10.7 million land deal in 1996. The group currently is negotiating to buy 1,655 acres of Lower Topanga Canyon for transfer to the state Department of Parks and Recreation. The state will use the land to link Topanga State Park with Topanga State Beach. Unfortunately, that will mean doing away with 56 single-family rental units, and 14 long-established businesses, including the Reel Inn restaurant, the Malibu Feed Bin and the Topanga Ranch Market.

“You declare yourself a non-profit then you act as a real estate agent,” charged Scott Dittrich, a 30-year resident who pays $1,100 a month for his three-bedroom home.

The ALC is one of a small handful of non-profits that facilitate public purchase of land to be saved for future generations. The groups buy land or lease options, clear away such obstacles as liens or legal problems, then sell the parcels to public agencies.

The ALC and director Harriet Burgess, a politically-connected wheeler-dealer with offices in the swankiest section of San Francisco, were investigated after a land exchange involving an area near Las Vegas called Deer Creek. Burgess and federal bureaucrats had a bargaining session in which she and a client persuaded the government to accept private land appraisals, the inspector general found. The appraisals arti ficially raised the value of the land she was offering the government to an amount more than double what three senior federal appraisers said it was worth, investigators said.

The taxpayers lost nearly $6 million in the deal, while Burgess cleared $2 million, the Seattle Times reported. Inspectors also found that former Forest Service supervisor Jim Nelson accepted the use of a private Squaw Valley condo over Christmas vacation, and a fishing trip to Canada on a private yacht, from the ALC and other landowners.

“We definitely saw some squirrelly aspects of our land exchange program that needed correcting,” said Chris Wood, senior policy advisor at the U.S. Forest Service.” One of the immediate reforms we enacted was a moratorium on third-party-facilitated exchanges.”

Burgess downplayed the Deer Creek incident. “It is easy to say you paid too much for something,” said Burgess. “It happens. There is one thing that everyone has an opinion on and that is real estate . . . In a more global perspective, it was a small issue.”

But Topanga residents said the ALC and Burgess are at it again, concocting environmental problems to get them off their sites. The ALC claims runoff from their septic tanks has triggered closures below at Topanga Beach. The ALC also charges that their homes threaten steelhead trout in nearby Topanga Creek.

It’s difficult to assess the ALC’s charges. But an end-of-summer report card from the environmental monitoring group Heal the Bay gave Topanga Beach an A for water quality. And Topanga Creek runs only part of the year; on a visit last week, no water was visible in the creekbed.

“If the ALC is compensated in the deal then I think we should definitely know how much, given what happened in Nevada,” said attorney Frank Angel, who represents area residents. “Land values are going to be inflated by the deal. Wouldn't you want to get more public parkland for your buck?”

Dittrich questions whether the state is using the ALC to get out of offering tenants relocation packages. Burgess is cagey about evictions: ”We haven't got into the details about who will be doing the evicting,” she said.

But the state has made it clear it will not buy the land with the tenants on it, said spokesman Roy Stearns.

“We don't want to inherit environmental problems,” said Stearns. “We want it put back to a natural state. We feel that it is a local problem first between the owner and the conservancy.”

“Let people leave by attrition,” Dittrich urged. “That would be the kinder, gentler way.”

But Dittrich's time may be up soon. The ALC is preparing a land appraisal. —Christine Pelisek


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