Lower Topanga residents continue fight to stay

As an interim-management plan for the 1,659 acres of Lower Topanga is discussed by State Parks, residents and businesses circulate a petition to government officials asking for long-term leases.

By Matthew L. Nestel/Special to The Malibu Times

In what was termed a “schizoid mission” California State Parks officials conducted a meeting last week to discuss an interim-management plan for the Lower Topanga area that was recently acquired for the purpose of creating a state park that would run through Topanga Canyon all the way to the Pacific.

Few Topanga residents and business owners turned up at the Dec. 13 meeting in the Valley to discuss both the two-year interim-management plan and to shed light on their fate. The ongoing saga began earlier in the year when the State of California allocated $48 million to purchase 1,659 acres of Lower Topanga Canyon property from longstanding owner, the Los Angeles Athletic Club’s parent company, LAACO, Ltd.

While the acquisition was green-lighted as a victory for environmentalists, the tenants and business owners sprinkled on the lower 50 acres are facing a July 1, 2002 deadline to relocate. Also in debate is whether businesses such as the Topanga Ranch Motel, Wylie’s Bait and Tackle, the Feed Bin, and the Reel Inn will pass through the state’s demanding criteria and be allowed to stay. And should restoration of wetlands become paramount for the state, there is the dilemma of traffic congestion that could affect Malibu residents and visitors alike.

Based on the surmountable two-year task at hand to metamorphose Topanga, Clay Phillips, chief of the Southern Service Center for State Parks, admits, “Our department has a schizoid mission ahead of it.”

To combat the preservation of historic sites, Phillips noted, “We have to follow the Secretary of Interior’s guidelines. Topanga Ranch Motel clearly seems to be eligible. We will only move out current settings if they are an adverse effect.”

This litany of criteria is based on two factors: age and significance. The structures may stay, however, their function will probably differ from current operations.

The hot topic of relocation popped up and Phillips remained cryptic. “All tenants received relocation materials,” he said.

However, Scott Dittrich, Topanga local since 1972 and co-chair of the ad hoc committee, the Lower Topanga Community Association, countered, “There have been no specific offers or relocation packages.”

Dittrich said “there are people who will get $25,000 for their property. [It] sounds good until you try and think of another place in Malibu that is affordable.”

Considering the age of some of the residents, this poses a serious dilemma, said Dittrich.

“A couple of women have been there 50 years,” he explained. “I spoke to one recently and she was out of strength by the time we finished talking on the phone. She doesn’t have any energy to find another place. She pays $470 in rent and lives on $1,200 Social Security [per month].”

Dittrich passionately acknowledged, “We know we’re going to have to leave. But six months is not enough time when you lived there for 30 years.”

He reinforced this sentiment with a dictation of a petition to be sent to Gov. Gray Davis, Sen. Sheila Kuehl, Assemblymember Fran Pavley and L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. He said it was signed by more than 16,000 patrons of local businesses against the swift removal of the longtime artistic community of businesses and residents

Dittrich read: “We object to the devious plan of evicting these businesses and surrounding long-term residents who live in the last affordable housing along the coast … Please allow us to stay in our houses until a new master plan is approved [and] ready to be implemented.”

With regard to the Wetland restoration prospect, there lingers a serious concern for the headaches it could cause. What would need to happen is a widening of the current bridge and a lengthening of Pacific Coast Highway to expand the flow channel, reducing fragmentation, and opening up the stream and lagoon. A removal of non-native plants and trees would make way for re-planting of native plant species. The emphasis for hydrology and return to the original wetland footprint hypes concerns for commuters.

Phillips did not quell fears of traffic through the new state park when he negated any plan for future testing.

“It’s not anticipatory doing a traffic impact at this time,” he said.

Phillips reiterated the state’s determined goals and actions. Alternatives were entertained but “deemed not consistent with interim management goals.” They include: maintaining private residential use, implementation of overnight camping/recreation vehicle use as suggested in a 1977 general plan, and creating formal trailhead parking in the canyon.

When an audience member made mention of the rest of the 1,550 acres not in the limelight, Phillips retorted, “We didn’t ignore the rest of the property. It just happens to be that most of the issues revolve around these 50 acres.”

After more than two hours of grilling about the concerns of residents and others, Phillips said, “We will have to address the potential impact of all of our actions.”

Still, Dittrich suspects that the expediting of the locals’ leave is politically motivated.

“Before they know the needs of the community, they have already decided what to do. It’s all set for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Gray Davis.”

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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