New eviction notices issued after Lower Topanga arbitration process

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Many residents of Lower Topanga who face imminent eviction live in an area called the Rodeo Grounds.

Residents received notices that they must vacate their homes by Sunday.

By Mark Bassett/Special to The Malibu Times

The remaining residents of Lower Topanga who have been fighting eviction for several years have lost another round, this time in court, and received a fresh round of eviction notices, with a date of departure set for this Sunday, Feb. 29, from California State Parks.

Retired Judge Samuel Reyes entered an advisory opinion Feb. 10 in favor of the eviction of the remaining Lower Topanga residents. This opinion ended a six-month grievance process that residents hoped would allow them to stay in their homes. Ronald Brean, deputy director of State Parks, immediately issued the eviction notices the same day.

“We immediately adopted the judge’s decision,” said Nicholas Richtiene from the office of State Park Acquisitions.

The Malibu Times has been covering developments in this eminent domain story since 2001, when the State Parks Department purchased 1,659 acres of Lower Topanga land from the Los Angeles Athletic Club Organization (LAACO) for approximately $43 million. In 2002, 74 residents and businesses received eviction notices. Many families and business owners took advantage of a compensation package offered by State Parks and relocated. Twenty or so residents made the decision to stay in their homes and try to work through the conflict in court.

The nonbinding advisory opinion leaves homeowners to face the specter of eviction or a protracted legal battle in State Superior Court. While not surprised by Judge Reyes’ determination, residents were dismayed with the contents of the brief.

“He rubber stamped the State Park’s argument and disregarded over 100 of the residents arguments,” said Bernt Capra, co-

chair of the Lower Topanga Community Association, and a longtime resident of the area. “He actually transposed the words from the State Park’s attorney into his ruling.”

One of the central points of the residents’ grievance was that State Parks did not follow the implicit guidelines set forth in California’s relocation laws. Specifically, establishing a uniform method for determining compensation awarded to residents for their properties. However, this point of contention may not be the central argument of their Superior Court case.

“We will file [in Superior Court] within 20 days from the date of the judge’s opinion,” said Craig Dummit, attorney for the Lower Topanga residents, “choosing a course of action that is the most economical and that has the best chance of a fair hearing.”

Retired Judge Reyes was not a mutually agreed upon arbitrator, he was hired by State Parks. However, California law necessitates this type of nonbinding arbitration prior to any legal action.

“The law dictates that we must go through the grievance process first before filing,” Capra said. “The [legal] process is a big financial burden but the alternative is unthinkable.”

Scott Dittrich, co-chair of the Lower Topanga Community Association, said he feels there isn’t another community like Lower Topanga. He explained that together residents have fought fires and floods, maintained their common road and bridge, and served as a neighborhood watch.

“We looked out for each other and each other’s kids,” he said. “We are a neighborhood that relies on each other.”

State Parks purchased the land with the intent to connect parkland from the mountains to the sea. Nature trails, restoring native fauna and flora, and restoring wetlands at the outlet of Topanga Creek may be included in the plan for the area. This last step would require construction of a wide bridge on a crowded stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway where the lagoon meets the ocean.

The time line for the demolition process of Lower Topanga homes and businesses is being conducted in three phases. The first phase was the demolition of 12 homes. The second phase included asbestos abatement and demolition of the Topanga Ranch Market and 11 more Lower Topanga homes. The third phase of demolition is sidelined because the remaining Lower Topanga residents have exercised their right to non-binding arbitration and legal action.

Not all the businesses in Lower Topanga will be demolished; the Topanga Ranch Motel, Wylie’s Bait and Tackle Shop, Something’s Fishy, Thai Cholada and Reel Inn will remain intact. This decision is because of the historic significance of the buildings and because the businesses

are considered visitor serving. However, the owners of Something’s Fishy had decided to take a relocation settlement and have since closed their business.

A target demolition date for Ginger Snips, The Money House, Malibu Feed Bin and Oasis Furniture has not been set due to lack of funding.

Roy Stearns, director and chief of communications for State Parks, did not return phone calls or e-mails for comments on the development in the Lower Topanga evictions.