The long-stalled effort to rehabilitate the Venice Canals got a jump-start this week as City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter publicly abandoned a nasty dispute with homeowners, and the city set a 1992 target date to start work on the crumbling waterways.
"This piece of paper is like gold to me," said Anita Henkins, waving a project schedule prepared by city engineering officials at a meeting called by Galanter.
Henkins, a canal resident since 1948 and a veteran of previous failed attempts to renovate the last of Venice's waterways, said this is the first time refurbishing plans have gotten to the point of setting a start date.
There are, however, a slew of permits that must be obtained from agencies ranging from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Army Corps of Engineers. The canals' historical significance means that there must also be consultation with several cultural commissions and historical review boards. And the city and the California Coastal Commission must also give their approval.
Venice founder Abbot Kinney built a system of canals in the early part of the century to try to create a community fashioned after its namesake city in Italy. But nearly all of the canals have been paved over. The six remaining canals were build by another developer and have been in disrepair for decades.
Galanter has been at war with some of her canal-neighborhood constituents since she was elected 3 1/2 years ago. The key issue is which brand of perforated concrete block should be used to reinforce the canal banks and hold soil in place to provide a good growing environment for natural wetland grasses and plants.
Galanter, citing recommendations from state environmental experts, has backed a less-expensive product, Armorflex. Members of the Venice Canals Assn. overwhelmingly favor a block called Loffelstein, which they say is far more attractive and worth the added expense.
At one point, the dispute got quite heated. Galanter told the residents at one heated meeting that it would be "Armorflex or nothing." And when members of the canals association framed the issue as "Loffelstein or death," it wasn't clear that they were joking.
On Monday night, however, Galanter capitulated, telling about 90 property owners present that the decision was their call. "The choice is going to be made by the property owners," Galanter said. "It doesn't matter what my position is."
Association member Mark Galanty pronounced the statement as "extreme progress. It's the best thing we've ever heard."
There are about 380 properties bordering the canals and their owners have formed an assessment district to pay for the repairs. But if Galanter had continued to insist that the choice was Armorflex or nothing, and if the residents had disliked it enough to vote for nothing, the district, by law, would have been disbanded. Any effort to refurbish the canals would then have had to start anew.
To start the permit process as soon as possible, city engineers have devised a dual proposal under which agencies would approve either material, depending on the outcome of a vote of the homeowners. That can't occur until July, when a one-year test of Loffelstein along a short stretch of canal bank is completed.
The test was demanded by property owners, who insisted their favored material could grow the environmentally correct marsh grasses as well as an Armorflex test site has shown it can--which some residents contend is not very well.
The vote is expected to be a landslide for Loffelstein. Galanty said the most recent association vote showed that "99.9%" of members favor it.
At the meeting Monday night, property owner Lester Light, a Santa Monica Superior Court judge, said the test sites were unrealistic because they had to be covered with protective fencing to keep the canal ducks from eating the plants.
Noting that there will always be children, ducks and dogs on the canal banks, Light advised his neighbors to select the blocks based on their "naked" appearance, because they may never be obscured by vegetation.
Another property owner, David Contant, was more hopeful about the plants' future. "The beauty of the canals will come as these two products disappear. They both look like hell."
The property owners insist they are willing to pay for the Loffelstein, also called Loffel Block. They will be billed through the special assessment district over a 10-year period, in an amount to be determined when the project goes out for bids.
According to city Project Engineer Sam Koduah, the estimated 1990 cost of Armorflex is $2.1 million, while Loffelstein $2.9 million. Several speakers said that would total $300 or more a year per property.
Four years ago, a different canal renovation plan pushed by Galanter's predecessor, Pat Russell, had been approved by the city and was under review by the California Coastal Commission.
After Galanter was elected however, she withdrew the project in response to concerns raised by the Coastal Commission staff, which found that the planned vertical concrete banks were not hospitable to wetlands vegetation and animal life.
Many community members suspected Galanter of retaliating against them because of their support of Russell in the 1987 election, and the battle was on.
Indeed, several residents at Monday's meeting walked out remarking about Galanter's change in position and manner. "I'm in a state of shock," said Bob Myers. "I've never been in a meeting with Ruth Galanter where she was so agreeable."
Standing nearby was Mary Lee Gray, who is running for City Council against Galanter next April. Galanter's fence-mending efforts, said Gray, a longtime field deputy for County Supervisor Deane Dana, began "after I announced my candidacy in August."