LOS ANGELES TIMES -- April 17, 2003

"Glum Stares Amid Bulldozers' Roar"

By Martha Groves
Photos by Anacleto Rapping

As houses are razed for expansion of Topanga State Park, longtime residents believe a way of life is also being demolished.

Like a ravenous T. rex, the backhoe tore again and again into the ramshackle house at the mouth of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, quickly reducing it to a pile of snapped lumber and twisted metal.

The early morning demolition buoyed state parks officials, who are nine months behind on their plan for putting in a parking lot, picnic tables and trailheads where the twisty boulevard meets Pacific Coast Highway.

Longtime residents, meanwhile, gaze glumly as bulldozers knock down neighbors' houses one by one. After all, they say, the metal jaws are crushing not just plywood homes but also a way of life.

"A little paradise is coming to an end for no good reason," growled Bernt Capra, a transplanted Austrian filmmaker who has rented a home in lower Topanga Canyon for 22 years -- a relatively short time by the community's standards.

Once home to dozens of writers, painters, actors, filmmakers, poets and retirees, the area was perhaps the last affordable seaside haven in Los Angeles. Here, an artist could rent a home and sun-splashed studio for a paltry $400 a month, or splurge on a $1,000 six-bedroom compound replete with fruit trees and hammocks.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation saw the area as a biological treasure that was being degraded by human habitation.

In August 2001, the department bought the 1,659 acres for $43 million from LAACO Ltd., which owns the Los Angeles Athletic Club. The department's goal was to extend the 11,000-acre Topanga State Park and hack out the first uninterrupted trail from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific.

The agency sent eviction notices last April to the more than 70 tenants in the area, hoping that residents would negotiate relocation packages and vacate by July 1, 2002. But the process quickly bogged down as tenants resisted leaving their counterculture commune.

Over the next several months, about 50 month-to-month renters, many of whom had lived in the area for decades, accepted cash payments and moved. The settlements have averaged $80,000 each, with the top payout so far $255,000 to a tenant who was able to document that he had made about $100,000 in improvements to his extensive compound. The money enabled many residents to buy or lease new quarters in Malibu, Pacific Palisades and other nearby communities.

But 20 tenants, including Capra, balked. They filed grievances against the parks department in an effort to gain more time or a more generous settlement. So far, $4.1 million in taxpayer-backed bond money has gone to lower Topanga tenants and business owners. An additional $2.6 million remains to cover the cost of relocating the die-hard tenants and some businesses. That process is expected to take several months.

The owner of the old Topanga Ranch Market on Pacific Coast Highway sold out months ago, and parks officials expect to raze it and turn the site into a parking lot for visitors.

The state also plans to begin negotiations soon with longtime businesses at Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway. Officials say they would like Reel Inn Fresh Fish Restaurant to stay on as an amenity for park visitors. Not so for the quirky Malibu Feed Bin, which sells gifts and animal feed from a bright red barn, and Oasis, an outdoor furniture and pottery business.

"This is one of the top-grossing businesses in all of Malibu," Oasis owner David Haid said. "Between us and the Feed Bin, we give the state over half a million dollars in tax revenues every year. And now we have somebody sending me a letter to close down my business."

The uncertainty has put Marty Morehart, owner of the Feed Bin for 35 years, in a bind. "We don't know whether to buy or not to buy for the fall and winter seasons," he said. The almond firewood he stocks needs at least five months to dry; holiday trim-a-tree gifts need to be ordered now.

"We don't know what's going to happen," he added.

State parks officials fear that delays caused by reluctant tenants and business owners could jeopardize the project, given the state's financial distress. "We don't want to get behind and have our state parks money reallocated somewhere else," said Roy Stearns, a department deputy director. "We feel an obligation to stay on track to convert this into a park for the public."

Meanwhile, demolition contractors are attempting to work around lingering tenants, raising hackles in the process.

Chris Murray, an actor, said he had to whisk his wife and two small children away from their home one recent Sunday when men in hazardous materials uniforms showed up to remove old tile from the house next door, and dust began flying.

"They posted 'Danger: Asbestos' signs, but I had no idea they'd start work on a Sunday when we'd be home," he said.

One relocation official reported that he was threatened by a renter -- albeit with a garden hoe -- and tenants have complained that parks officials have harassed them. Officials counter that they have issued citations to some tenants who put furniture on their lawns or moved belongings into abandoned structures slated to be torn down.

In addition to knocking down structures, officials also intend soon to begin eradicating nonnative plants such as oleanders, nasturtiums, eucalyptus trees and morning glories. Suzanne Goode, a senior resource ecologist, plans in late summer to begin removing arundo, a towering, bamboo-like plant that she considers the worst offender.

The plant grows so thickly and propagates so easily, she said, that it has diverted the creek and crowded out trees that would serve as habitat for birds and other creatures.

The prospect of losing the arundo pains Pablo Capra, Bernt's 6-foot-7 writer-poet son, who considers the plant his natural habitat. He has lived most of his 23 years with his father in the secluded Rodeo Grounds section of lower Topanga and traipses daily through the ubiquitous stands of arundo to go surfing or to visit his neighbor, James Mathers, an artist who lives in an Airstream trailer.

The arundo even provided Capra the title for a book he compiled recently of poetry by the lower Topanga community: Idlers of the Bamboo Grove. Mathers, who one recent morning sported a pin-striped suit smeared with paint blotches, did the drawings and contributed a poem called "A Village on Cracking Stilts" that included the passage:

Like a beautiful woman dying of cancer
Our village counts the days,
Each a gift of infinite pleasure.

Is anything sweeter than another empty day?

"The lower Topanga community was a model for how people should live in harmony with nature," Capra said. "We're just trying to hold on as long as we can."

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