A stretch of the Ventura Freeway in Agoura Hills, which city officials want to have named a state "scenic highway," is a visual potpourri.
There are rolling hills, oak trees and majestic Ladyface Mountain rising to an elevation of 2,000 feet. But also coming sharply into view are things not of Mother Nature, such as billboards and signs on tall poles for fast-food restaurants and gas stations.
West of Reyes Adobe Road, three pink two-story office buildings next to the freeway form a wall that blocks much of the view of Ladyface.
But despite the blemishes, Agoura Hills officials maintain that the 4 1/2-mile stretch of freeway through their city is scenic.
The city became the first to apply for the scenic highway designation under a state law sponsored last year by Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia). The law made it possible for cities and counties along a 71-mile portion of the freeway from Topanga Canyon Boulevard to Santa Barbara to apply for such status. The stretch has historical significance as "El Camino Real," the king's highway, a path linking the Spanish missions of 18th-Century California.
Although such a designation would carry no legal weight, it would "make a philosophical statement" about what type of development should be allowed along the freeway, where past policies have not always preserved scenic beauty, Agoura Hills Councilwoman Louise C. Rishoff said.
"No one's suggesting that it's a pristine rural area," Rishoff said. "The designation really makes a philosophical statement. . . . We want to preserve what we have, and we are requiring development to respect what there is of the scenic beauty around."
The city submitted its application Aug. 17 to the state Department of Transportation, which must decide whether the area has scenic quality and whether the city is trying to protect it.
Agoura Hills' application emphasized Ladyface Mountain, oak trees, the hills and the overall "rural atmosphere" of Agoura Hills, which is adjacent to part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
As for the ugly elements of the freeway corridor, the application said existing city ordinances require that pole signs be removed by 1991, that new billboards be kept out and that new hillside developments conform to the natural contours of the land.
"The designation itself would give additional authority and basis for these requirements," City Manager David N. Carmany said.
Those laws did not exist when the much-criticized Katell office development, which obstructs the view of Ladyface Mountain, was approved in 1984. The project became a pivotal issue in the 1985 election, which shifted the city's policies toward slow growth and environmentalism.
Mayor Darlene McBane and council members Jack W. Koenig and Fran Pavley, who are seeking reelection this fall, used the Katell project in 1985 to batter incumbent John Hood, who supported it. Hood was soundly defeated.
"We can't turn back the clock on projects that were already approved by earlier councils and by the county prior to incorporation" in 1982, said Rishoff, who was elected in 1987.
"We inherited a great many problems," McBane said.
Billboards have been foremost among those problems, city officials agree, advertising everything from townhouses to jukeboxes.
'They Have a Problem'
"I can't say it's ugly, but they have a problem with their billboards," Westlake Village Councilman Irwin Shane said of Agoura Hills.
"It personally offends me," he said. "I don't think you can have a scenic highway until you get rid of the billboards."
Last year, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich worked with city officials to remove a controversial cigarette advertisement from atop a county animal shelter.
But state law protects most existing billboards from elimination. Agoura Hills has enacted a law preventing new ones from being erected, and city officials hope that the old ones will eventually disappear as the land underneath them is developed, Carmany said.
Of course, billboards have their defenders, such as Paul Reno of Antique Amusements Co. of Sherman Oaks. The firm has a glittering blue, red and fluorescent yellow billboard along the freeway in Agoura Hills.
Reno said that though the billboard is very colorful, he doesn't find it offensive. "It's a very profitable form of advertising," he said.
Because of the billboards and other assorted clutter, some wonder why Agoura Hills officials think that the freeway deserves a scenic designation.
James B. Henderson, a Westlake Village resident, scoffed at the effort to get the designation.
"Scenic highway?" Henderson said. "In Agoura Hills?" That part of the freeway, he said, is "the rottenest-looking stretch . . . from Hollywood to Santa Barbara."
"It looks like just an average stretch of freeway to me," said Tony Hyder, a driver for an Agoura Hills towing company. "The hillsides are pretty, but there are a hundred other pieces of freeway just like it in L. A."
But those who do not see the merit in the city's efforts are missing the point, say Agoura Hills officials, who view the scenic highway designation as a way of cleaning up the freeway in the long run.
With scenic highway status, a future City Council would face a tougher political battle if it were to try to loosen the city's restrictions on signs or hillside developments, Rishoff said.
"I think it's really a classic case of a little city trying to better itself," Carmany said.