by Kresse Amour
On a busy week day, perhaps a dozen cars an hour roll up Big Tujunga Canyon, heading east toward the Angeles National Forest. It’s a salty old spit of road, lined and cracked –– weathered like an old man’s face. It’s hit-or-miss blacktop –– smooth here, craggy there –– what you’d expect of a winding mountain route through take-yourbreath-away natural wildland.
Chattering birds provide the eternal song of the mountains, joyous background music for those passing through. It’s not unusual to spot a deer or a coyote, a possum, skunk or raccoon. Bobcats roam the deeper backcountry. Ground squirrels dart in and out, dashing on their frenzied way. Falcons and hawks swoop and soar on sunny afternoon breezes. A bear is seen now and again.
At night it’s pitch black in the canyon, the darkness overhead filled with the hooting of great horned owls.
When cold weather hits, and temperatures drop, snow often frosts the mountaintops in a dazzle of winter white.
The lower hills, scuffed by wind and rain, reveal a kind of geological layer cake, ancient slices of earth and craggy rock that yield the gritty secrets of eons gone by.
“Big T,” as locals refer to Big Tujunga Canyon, is a place where joggers, mountain bikers, hikers, dog walkers and horses often outnumber vehicles. A place to leave the city behind, a place to breathe –– a precious haven of nature well worth safeguarding.
“It’s God’s Country,” say many locals who call these foothills home. It’s a place they pray won’t be changed. A place so important that former LA City Councilmember Wendy Gruel actively sought to change zoning so that the land would be protected and preserved from the ravages of overdevelopment.
But now, in what many are calling a betrayal of public trust, an area of land designated during the Gruel administration to exceed not more than 22 homes in total –– big lots, small population –– is in jeopardy. Developer Ben Salisbury aims to cram 242 houses into a space that has been dubbed “Sardine City.” Mansions on tiny lots instead of more appropriately-sized homes on their intended 2-5 acre parcels. The project would also eliminate a longstanding truck road; the implications for fire season are not known at this time.
The occupancy of the proposed 242 homes would, at a minimum, ramp up use of Big Tujunga Canyon by at least 2,000 car trips per day. An “insane” number locals say. The subsequent impact to both wildlife and the local environment would be devastating, add locals, whose goal is to make Salisbury and any other developer simply follow the law.
Even organizations like the Santa Monica Conservancy have joined the conversation, voicing their concerns on the proposed zoning changes.
Michael Moncreiff and Jimmy Gomez, owner-managers of Rancho Tujunga, a 10-acre horse ranch just west of the proposed development, say that the already designated 22 equestrian property plan “would fit very well” into the existing canyon scheme.
“If this is the neighborhood,” said Moncreiff, a 14- year-canyon resident, “they should stick with the plan.”
He feels that “upzoning,” which would radically change the proposed use of the property to allow for far greater density of housing, is not appropriate and wonders why city officials would even consider overturning the law “for one guy.” Why, he wonders, is the developer pushing so hard?
Rancho Tujunga is a facility that currently stables about 75 horses. Behind the 10-acre ranch are miles of rambling trails used by outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes. There’s an easy affability in the canyon, Moncreiff says, a respect among all those who spend time there.
In addition to the able-bodied riders that are drawn to Rancho Tujunga, itself a rustic medley of barns, corrals and giant shade trees, the ranch is also host to the Willie Ross Foundation, an equine program whose mission is to work with non-verbal, deaf, autistic, and developmentally disabled adults. Such programs work magic for those involved, its many volunteers and riders alike, something about horses so healing to the body and soul.
But the mountain environment is now threatened by the prospect of overdevelopment and the excessive human impact it would bring.
Moncreiff also worries about the potential for other types of harm. He mentions that part of his ranch is leased from the DWP. It is protected watershed, where groundwater runs less than 25 feet beneath the earth. The possibility of contamination, brought on by the heavy equipment that construction of 242 homes would bring, holds great environmental risk.
Conversation returns to the concept of 22 homes, built on lots 2-5 acres each. “That would fit,” Moncreiff said, suggesting that fewer, higher-priced homes would be consistent with the existing plan. “There are people who work downtown who would spend $1 millionplus to have a mountain home here.”
His eyes follow the ridgeline of the mountains across the wash from the home he built himself. Echoing the sentiments of those drawn to the foothills he said, “I didn’t come here to live in the city.” He looks east toward the site where he hopes that 242 homes are never built, takes in the exquisite mountain view, and shakes his head.
“When you pave things over they’re lost,” he said. “You never get them back.”