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Power to the Valley

The basic unit of revolution in Los Angeles over the last quarter-century has been the single-family home in the San Fernando Valley. A relentless growth machine fed by political donations and by pacts reached between developers and elected officials over drinks in exclusive downtown clubs created those homes, their backyards and pools, and the streets and stores that serve them. But by the 1970s, Valley homeowners saw that machine turning against them in the form of high-rises, denser strip malls and clogged traffic arteries. They fought back. Los Angeles has been reshaped by the alliances they forged and dropped, and by the enemies, real and imagined, they took on.

In the mid-1970s, Valley homeowners found their alliance in their own backyard, joining with business leaders in various local chambers of commerce to form the Committee Investigating Valley Independent City/County. Their goal: secession from Los Angeles, to ensure that taxes raised in the Valley stayed in the Valley, with decisions about growth made at home instead of in distant downtown.

CIVICC fizzled, and state-law changes put Valley cityhood out of reach for more than two decades. At about the same time, though, attorney Richard Close became president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association and planted the seeds for the next effort by fighting the growth machine’s commercial development on Ventura Boulevard.

The separatist venture over for now, the Valley became the spiritual home of the property-tax revolt. First in living rooms, then in school auditoriums, homeowners plotted an overhaul of the tax structure so that they could keep the full benefit of their rising real estate values. In this fight, they lined up happily with the same commercial developers and business interests they saw as their adversaries in Planning Commission meetings. Californians adopted Proposition 13 in 1978, bringing homeowners and businesses alike relief from soaring taxes — and provoking a perpetual scramble for money to pay for the very state and city services that Valley homeowners said they lacked.

Valley homeowners and business leaders broke with each other again in the 1980s, as groups based in houses that clung to hillsides south of Ventura Boulevard organized to block large-scale apartment and commercial development. This time, allies were found in those other canyons and hillsides, just over Mulholland. A Westside-Valley coalition named itself Not Yet New York to underscore its mission: stop the growth machine and retain the suburban lifestyle. Councilman Marvin Braude, who represented both sides of the hill, launched a slow-growth ballot measure, and then-Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky signed on. In an unexpected move, so did the Latino Eastside, which was fighting for land-use control in the face of plans to construct a Boyle Heights prison, and South L.A., which had similar problems with a proposed trash-burning plant. Voters passed Proposition U in 1986, and slow growth became the marching orders for City Hall for a decade.

 

Not all Valley battles were fought at the ballot box. Activists sought greater Valley self-determination in the late 1980s through the redistricting process. But it turned out that the real locus of redistricting clout was the federal courthouse, and the real parties with legitimate disenfranchisement grievances were Latino voters. A city redistricting plan was struck down in court, leaving council members to squabble over who was going to give up what to satisfy federal mandates. The stalemate broke only with the untimely death of Councilman Howard Finn. Finn’s Valley seat was pushed farther east to create the new Latin-majority 1st District, and voters there elected Gloria Molina. The Latino advance was a Valley defeat.

But though the Valley had lost a councilman, it won a mayor. Richard Riordan was a resident of Brentwood, but he grabbed the Mayor’s Office in 1993 on the strength of Valley voters. State-law changes, meanwhile, put secession within reach once again, and Riordan treated the movement with respect, appointing top breakaway-minded Valley leaders to city commissions and reminding the Valley residents at every opportunity that “we love you, and we want you to stay.”

The secession effort by Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment was better organized and more experienced than the old CIVICC group. Richard Close, still president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association a quarter-century later, led a powerful Valley VOTE that paired the experience and disaffection of homeowners with the clout of Valley business groups. Allies were found in San Pedro, which also nurtured a cityhood movement, but other friends came from surprising places. It turned out that Eagle Rock, too, harbored secession plans. And Hollywood. And even the Westside.

San Fernando Valley secession went to the ballot in November 2002, and Valley voters passed it. It fell short in the rest of the city, meaning Los Angeles remained intact, but the Valley in many ways scored a major victory. Much of the area that Finn once represented had an influx of Latino immigrants and began electing Latino council members, so Latino gain no longer meant Valley loss. Redistricting this time empowered the Valley, which gained a seat and now claims a third of the council. City Hall recognized the Valley as a geographically distinct statistical area, giving it more say over its own planning.

Meanwhile, a new city charter has put land-use decisions that used to go to a citywide zoning board into the hands of new area planning panels, staffed locally by people who know the community. The charter also mandated neighborhood councils that, at least in theory, will put more control in the hands of local people.

Across the city, though, elected officials are working hand in hand with developers — this time, developers of low-income residences and mixed-use projects — to reduce the housing crisis by repealing density restrictions and permitting new high-rises. Much depends on whether homeowners in the Valley embrace the new efforts or see in them the latest manifestation of the growth machine.

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