RANCHO PALOS VERDES — The past and the future are bumping heads on 24 open hilltop acres long famous for radios and farming.
When it was the Wallace Ranch, the property on Highridge Road was a window on the world for Don C. Wallace, who spent 40 years talking to hundreds of thousands of amateur radio buffs worldwide from W6AM, his ham radio station. The land is still farmed, the most recent crop being hay.
Now, just a year after Wallace's death at 86, a partnership headed by developer Ronald Florance, who is also a Palos Verdes Estates city councilman, has purchased the property for an undisclosed price. The group plans to build 83 homes in what Florance's architect has described as an elegant style reminiscent of the Italian coastal resorts of Portofino and Amalfi.
Radio and history buffs, however, want a corner of the property set aside as a historic site preserving Wallace's ranch house and radio equipment, and this has put them at odds with Florance, who says that the run-down building and Italianate luxury homes would not mix.
After a public hearing last week, the Planning Commission directed its staff to conduct an environmental study focused solely on whether the ranch warrants designation and preservation as a historic site. That study could take several weeks, according to the planning staff. Earlier, the staff concluded that Florance's development would have no significant environmental impact warranting formal study.
The commission is considering the tract map for the project, and the city has directed that nothing on the property be demolished until the historical issue has been resolved.
Florance, who plans to call his development Wallace Ranch and commemorate its radio era with a plaque at the entrance, has offered to move the ranch house to other locations, such as the city's Point Vicente Interpretive Center museum or the Civic Center.
But radio advocates say the historic value of the Wallace Ranch lies in the ham station as Wallace created it, and in the site itself. Wallace personally selected it as the best location for radio transmission on the West Coast when he was scouting sites in the 1920s for Press Wireless, an overseas radio communications company. Wallace bought the property, as well as additional land that he later sold, in 1945. When he died, his son, William Wallace, said, "There are 2 million ham operators in the world and dad knew a million of them."
World Famous Station
Jay Holiday, vice president of the American Radio Relay League, told the commission that W6AM "was one of the most famous radio stations in the world."
Calling the ranch a "major World War II communications link," Ken Dyda of the Rancho de los Palos Verdes Historical Society said the property is of "major historical significance for the United States." Dyda and others said a small piece of land should be set aside on an outer corner of the development for the building and radio equipment.
Sarah Grimes, whose husband, Elmer, has been farming the land for 13 years, said vintage farm equipment, and perhaps a small simulated field, also should be preserved so school children can understand the Peninsula's agricultural heritage.
"Four generations of a family of farmers have worked that land," she said.
Florance, however, took another view of what is left of Wallace's legacy. He said the ranch house, with its long veranda, was put together with "spit and glue" and is dilapidated.
He said that the building and radio equipment belong to the Wallace family, not his partnership. Some of the equipment has been donated--to the Queen Mary and California State University Northridge, among others--and the rest is in storage and will be donated, Florance said. He said the family also plans to remove the forest of wooden antenna poles, some as high as 140 feet, which have been landmarks for decades.
In an interview, Florance said people in the neighborhood have called him and said they hope the antenna poles and the commercial radio towers still in use will be removed. "The station interferes with telephones and television," he said.
Florance said he is willing to build a park or pay park fees to the city, as required by state law for new developments. But he does not want to preserve the Wallace radio station on his property, nor is that a desire of the Wallace family, he said.
He said the building already has been broken into twice and hay has been burned in the field.
Other speakers at the hearing were critical of the proposed development, citing increased traffic and objecting to an outer wall, which they said will isolate the homes from the neighborhood.
As they listened to the requests for preservation of the Wallace Ranch, some commissioners appeared to be skeptical about who would pay for this slice of history.
Commissioner Joan Ortolano asked speakers how much their organizations were willing to contribute to maintaining an historic site.
Holiday said his amateur radio group could "provide a few thousand dollars."