Topanga Canyon landowners who are being squeezed by conflicting state and county regulations have decided to use their imaginations to control a dangerous brush buildup around their 2,000-home community.
Homeowners say they may try to grind chaparral into mush that can be mixed with sewage sludge to create a rich fertilizer for agricultural projects such as vast new oak groves in the canyon.
The pulverizing would be done by a $100,000 machine called a "tub grinder," which would have the capacity to consume tons of brush daily.
Disposal of brush has turned into a major problem in the mountainous community.
New Los Angeles County Fire Department procedures require landowners to remove flammable brush within 200 feet of houses. Until last year, only a 100-foot clearance was required.
At the same time, however, air-pollution officials with the South Coast Air Quality Management District have tightened regulations against back yard brush burning--which has been the traditional way for Topanga landowners to dispose of cut chaparral.
A temporary reprieve on enforcement of the 2-year-old burning ban ends in May.
Use of a grinder has been proposed by the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District, a state agency involved in erosion control in the Santa Monica Mountains.
"It's a very far-sighted, progressive idea," said David Gottlieb, a director of the conservation district. "To clear the brush, you have to dispose of it. Landfills are filling up."
He said sludge would make the chaparral mush nutrient-rich. Plenty of the solid waste material is available from the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District's Tapia Sewage Treatment Plant in nearby Calabasas, he said.
Gottlieb said Topanga homeowners could also use their imaginations to raise money to buy a grinding tub. He said public agencies such as the county's sanitation districts might be willing to finance the equipment as a way of saving valuable landfill space.
Marty Corbett, president of the Topanga Town Council, said her group will investigate the grinder idea, although the council has no money to buy one for community use.
"We obviously have to do something to take care of the long-range problem," Corbett said Wednesday. "The AQMD is being quite nice about letting us burn this spring."
Lawrance L. Stiles, supervising enforcement inspector for the South Coast district, said Topanga homeowners "are now facing the same thing that others in the four counties have been facing for the past 10 or 15 years."
"It's a reprieve situation now. But it's not going to last forever. . . . Topanga Canyon is going to have to do its share" to prevent air pollution, Stiles said. About 800 tons of brush was burned in bonfire-like piles last year by canyon dwellers, he said.
Homeowners, who met earlier this week to discuss their brush-removal problem, said such fires are the best way to handle accumulated brush. Some parcels are too steep to allow the easy removal of cut chaparral, they said.
They heard the grinder idea promoted by Arthur Jokela, a college landscape architecture teacher from Pomona.
"There are people with no option but to burn," said resident Larry Finley, who copes with a 150-foot slope.
Allen Emerson, head of the community's volunteer Arson Watch program, said the new brush-clearance rules have led to increased illegal dumping along roadsides in the canyon. "The cost of taking it to the dump is too high," Emerson said.
He said brush clearance is important to Topanga, which periodically loses homes to brush fires.
"You have a major brush fire up here and you'll have some real air pollution," Emerson said.