The Acquisition of Mount Washington's Open Space Parks
by Clare Marter Kenyon
Mount Washington’s topography, rural ambience, open space and wildlife are compelling attractions to those seeking a quiet place to live in Los Angeles. Artists have long recognized the opportunities found here to create inspiring canvasses and sculptures amid a peaceful haven so closely proximate to the metropolis surrounding the hills. Nature-lovers and native plant enthusiasts abound in this small community and just about everyone, even those whose hobbies do not include gleefully yanking out invasive, non-native weeds, rises to the defense and protection of the local, remaining, natural open spaces. The appreciation by the community for native habitat, and recognition that without the natural open spaces there would be a serious diminution of wildlife and subsequent reduction in the quality of life, has resulted in the public acquisition of several parcels of natural land over the past two decades.
Rainbow Canyon was the first to become public land since the donation of the Carlin G. Smith Recreation Center and Park by the developer of the same name. An artist, Debra Vodhanel, living next to the canyon that runs between Avenue 44 and Rainbow Avenue, discovered that it was about to be sold at auction for back property taxes and defaulted brush clearance fees. She contacted a nature-loving neighbor, Clare Marter Kenyon. Naturalist neighbor and author Elna Bakker was instrumental in educating residents about the value of the native black walnut trees (Juglans californica var californica) that exist in only four counties of Southern California and are disappearing too rapidly to inventory.
With the support these neighbors gained from the canyon’s residents, through letters, newsletters and petitions, Councilman Richard Alatorre was prevailed upon to convince the City Council to purchase the land from the County and to forgive City fees owed on the property in the late 1980’s. The Rainbow Canyon property was transferred to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for stewardship of this important wildlife corridor.
Lower Rainbow Canyon, with its dense stand of black walnut woodland, was slated for an eleven-house development by a local realtor and contractor. The subdivision of this land was opposed vehemently by the neighborhood activists. Ultimately, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy was able to purchase this property, through a grant provided to offset the impacts of transportation construction, and permanently preserve the connection with the upper Rainbow Canyon parkland.
The acquisition of Elyria Canyon in 1994 was won in the end by the nexus of political will, the passage of a land acquisition proposition and the recognition by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy the agency needed to purchase more land on the east side of town.
The community, led early on by Lucille Lemmon (then-president of the Mount Washington Association - MWA) had fought a long, hard battle over thirteen years to defend the thirty-five acre Elyria Canyon from various developments that included plans for condominiums, thirty houses around the rim of the canyon and, lastly, for thirty-five houses in a cluster at the base of the canyon. Local architect Louis Mraz, also past-president of the MWA, deserves much credit for his expertise and efforts in challenging the later development plans.
Efforts to preserve the land, with its coastal sage scrub, walnut woodland and grassland communities, had not been successful until the struggle to resist Mr. Nelson Chung’s subdivision plans for thirty-five houses. As his development application was nearing approval by the City, then-current MWA president Clare Marter Kenyon recognized the favorable political and funding climate and renewed efforts to lobby the Conservancy and elected officials to purchase the land. Supervisor Gloria Molina supported the proposal to preserve Elyria Canyon and funding was available through County Proposition A. Residents of the Hill wrote many letters of support and forty-five determined people made the journey out to Simi Valley to an evening meeting of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to demonstrate support for the purchase of the canyon. The joyous dedication of the park, complete with a piped-piper, took place on May 22, 1994.
In 1992, the twenty-acre tract named Heidelberg Park was nominated for acquisition to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy by Clare Marter Kenyon and the Mount Washington Association. It is likely that it would have been purchased before Elyria Canyon, but the threat of development in that open space was pressing, whereas there were no plans to develop Heidelberg Park.
Dr. Jon Keeley of Occidental College had studied the black walnut trees in this area and had written a paper on the plant community. As support was gathered for the preservation of Heidelberg Park, Dr. Keeley’s study was sent to another expert on black walnuts, Dr. Ronald Quinn of CalPoly, Pomona. Dr. Quinn’s had written a well-researched paper – The Status of Walnut Woodlands in Southern California. He informed us that based on Dr. Keeley’s study and the proximity of the trees’ canopies to each other, the plant community here was more correctly described as a “black walnut forest,” not a woodland. He educated the community on the importance and rarity of such forests and his letters were used to bolster arguments for the need to preserve the land.
Mike Seif, co-owner of the land, confirmed that he was willing to sell and named his price. An effort was made to secure an Environmental Enhancement Mitigation grant to buy the parcel, but was not funded. Later, the land was donated to St. Mary’s Coptic Church by Mary Seif. Assemblymember Antonio Villaraigosa was successful in his efforts to include funding for the purchase of Heidelberg Park in the State Budget, but the Church failed to respond to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy’s many overtures.
In 2002, ten years after the initial nomination, representatives of the church suddenly contacted the Conservancy and declared that they were willing to sell the land. Proposition 40 funds were made available for the acquisition. The long-awaited dedication of the park took place in November, 2003.
Moon Canyon’s five acres of open space were threatened by development several times in the past four decades. Each time, community vigilance, advocacy and activism thwarted these proposals.
The last of these subdivision applications was in 2002 for up to twenty-one houses. Mr. Denis Hahn, the owner/developer, made it known that he was a willing seller. Councilmember Nick Pacheco announced that he would begin eminent domain proceedings to preserve the canyon as open space. Before this could be completed, Councilmember Antonio Villaraigosa replaced him as representative of Council District 14. Sharon Roessler and Clare Marter Kenyon, of the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance, worked with Councilmember Villaraigosa’s staff who were successful in identifying funds that could be used to buy the canyon. Mr. Hahn accepted the appraised value of the property and signed it over to the Department of Recreation and Parks. Moon Canyon Park was dedicated as a City of Los Angeles park in November, 2005.
While it is true that these efforts have been initiated by a handful of people, it is clear that without the solid backing from the community for the local environment, these successes may never have transpired