Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Trailhead Skirmish in Altadena

Once again readers of the Los Angeles Times are reminded that the influx of new Californians brings with them a certain myopia, and at times plain ignorance, of local environmental conditions, including building in the path of mudslides, flash floods, drought zones, or in the present case, at the entrance to a historic path in the Angeles National Forest:

In the early 1990s — a time angrily recalled in Altadena — developers offered a swath of historic Millard Canyon as public open space for hiking in return for permission to carve an upscale tract into the hills at the edge of the Angeles National Forest.

Yet "No trespassing" signs were recently posted to keep out hikers and equestrians who have traversed the lush canyon for decades, even without the trails that were to have been built as part of the agreement with Los Angeles County.

The area in question serves as a natural bottleneck for hikers and equestrian riders accessing national forest trails, and was a trade route for Indians centuries before developers gazed upon the baren hillsides. But, not only do homeowners have to deal with elevated risk of fires and landslides (think La Conchita up the coast), they also have to deal with the worst aspects of unregulated development at the edge of the forest:

Legal battles over the practicality of building so massive a project at the edge of the forest tied up the development in court for nearly a decade. No sooner had construction begun than the project was hit by financial and legal scandals.

In 2003, the county investigated claims that mature oak trees had died after being dug up and stored in planters during construction of the luxury homes.

Around the same time, La Vina's final 26 homes sat unoccupied and incomplete because the builder had defaulted on loans and payments to suppliers. The large stucco homes were eventually completed and, like the other units, sold for between $600,000 and $1 million.

Another controversy over La Vina ended up in criminal court. A year ago, Orange County home builder Timothy N. Roberts was sentenced to three years' probation in connection with diversion of money meant for upgrades to the unfinished homes, said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles district attorney's office.

Even arch-conservative LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich has urged the county to sue the association, "In approving the La Vina projects, I made a commitment — with unanimous board support — to the Altadena community that trails would be provided," Antonovich said. "This was mandated in the specific plan, the tract map and conditional-use permit.

The real reason, it seems, comes down to plain greed, coupled with unscrupulous development:

Homeowners' association leaders, meanwhile, say they are not about to give up private property in a place where home values are increasing at a rate of about $100,000 a year.

And our own version of a local soap opera continues.

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