Property owners turn out to protest new ecological area designations

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Opponents to the expansion of significant ecological areas as part of the new L.A. County General Plan say they are another level of regulation that restricts use of private property.

By P.G. O’Malley/Special to The Malibu Times

In an unusual switch on business as usual, local property owners instead of environmentalists jammed the hearing room at the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District on Las Virgenes Road last Wednesday in a rowdy protest against proposed changes in the Los Angeles General Plan they see as unfair to landowners in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Throughout the evening the meeting seemed in danger of swerving out of control as landowners demanded the county give them the straight story on the expansion of Significant Ecological Areas (SEAs) being considered for the new Los Angeles County General Plan. The county insists the SEAs are only a tool to identify land that contains significant biological resources so that development can be planned to protect those resources, but landowners see them as another level of regulation that restricts them from using their property. As presently conceived, the SEA designation will apply only to unincorporated areas of the county not covered by local city general plans, and the county regulations, once adopted, are not scheduled to apply in the coastal zone.

Although the county sent four members of the regional county staff to the meeting, the two-hour debate did little to clear the air on the issue that seemed to bother property owners the most-whether or not single-family homes are in fact exempt from SEA regulations regarding grading and vegetation, and other restrictions.

“The word ‘exempt’ has a hollow ring to it,” said Ruth Gerson, an advocate of recreational use of the Santa Monica Mountains whose family runs Calamigos Ranch. “Single-family homes are exempt if you’re not going to do anything else-not build a horse corral or barn. That’s not what the citizens of this area want.”

Gerson’s remarks were met with applause from the audience.

County representatives brought with them a glossy general plan update and an information packet that addressed frequently asked questions about the proposed regulatory changes in SEAs, but most participants paid more attention to two pages of questions distributed by Malibu resident Anne Hoffman, president of the Land Use Preservation Defense Fund. During the question-and-answer period, the four county staff members appeared inconclusive in their answers to questions from the audience, especially the charge that similar assurances about single-family exemptions were made in regard to the county’s recently adopted North Area Plan then reneged on. The North Area Plan covers the mountains inland from the Coastal Commission’s jurisdiction.

County Regional Planning Assistant Julie Lowry attempted to explain that the SEA designation is aimed at subdivisions, and the various restrictions such as limiting development to 20 percent of a lot are designed to produced clustering and leave as much land as possible undeveloped.

But property owner Brian Boudreaux challenged regional planner Lee Stark, “to leave the regular guy alone with his house and his land and his ranch.” Boudreaux owns property near Mulholland Highway and Las Virgenes Road where he plans to build a hotel and spa.

Members of the audience also disagreed with the way the SEAs were laid out and were unsatisfied when the county’s biological expert explained that although the county didn’t have jurisdiction, SEAs had been mapped in the coastal zone, because they continued over into unincorporated areas.

Likewise, the staff explanation that the expansion of the SEAs was based on new scientific information about countywide resources and their importance brought hoots from the audience, which speculated that if additional resources were discovered in the future, this would produce another round of regulations.

Only one person spoke in favor of expanding the SEAs. David Troy, a generator contractor from Topanga Canyon, told county planners he not only supported the SEAs he didn’t think the county should exempt single-family homes. “This land is beautiful and I love it,” Troy said.

Input from the workshop will be evaluated with public comment from elsewhere in the county and will be incorporated in a subsequent draft of the plan scheduled to be released for more public comment in the fall. The Planning Commission will hold hearings on whatever the staff eventually comes up with, but the Board of Supervisors will have the final say on what’s approved.