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Residents Celebrate Canyon Acquisition by Park Panel

February 28, 1991|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One year ago this month, the people who live near Rainbow Canyon in Mount Washington were worried that the rugged area, home to raccoons, red-tailed hawks and rare vegetation, would soon be destroyed to make room for new houses.

Real estate agents had begun showing the 29-acre site to potential builders.

But a yearlong community campaign to preserve the wildlife area paid off last month when Los Angeles officials agreed to buy the canyon and turn it over to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Neighbors gathered Saturday with representatives of the city and the conservancy to celebrate the acquisition.

"Now the canyon belongs to the whole community," said Debra Vodhanel, one of the neighborhood activists who helped save the site from development. "We think it might set a precedent for preserving other wildlife corridors in Mount Washington."

About 200 people attended the dedication ceremony. The event was highlighted by a sage-burning ceremony in which Manuel Rocha, a spiritual leader of the Gabrielino Indians, blessed the canyon.

The nature area is between Rainbow Avenue and Avenue 44 in the hillside area west of the Southwest Museum.

The canyon preservation drive earned the admiration of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency that acquires land for public recreational use.

"They're just wonderful neighborhood activists," Laura Plotkin, a conservancy spokeswoman, said. "Some things sort of drag on for years, but this happened very quickly. We're really happy to have this because it's in an area of the city that doesn't have much open space."

The canyon acreage, previously owned by Richard W. Altstadt of Los Angeles, was put up for sale by county officials in February, 1990. Diego Cardoso, a deputy planner for Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, said the land was auctioned because the owner owed nearly $45,000 in taxes and other fees, including a significant city charge for brush clearance.

During the auction, a prospective buyer put down a deposit to purchase the site, but he failed to complete the transaction a month later, Cardoso said.

Before that purchase bid was abandoned, Vodhanel, who lives near the canyon, became alarmed and spread the news.

"I saw Debbie on Avenue 44, looking very distressed," recalled Clare Marter-Kenyon, a neighbor. "She had just talked to a Realtor who had been showing it to a prospective buyer."

Marter-Kenyon and Vodhanel helped found the Rainbow Canyon Action Committee to work for preservation of the canyon. Community members documented more than 74 species of birds in the canyon and found healthy specimens of a rare tree, the California black walnut.

The group lobbied Alatorre's office for city acquisition of the acreage. In May, the councilman introduced a motion directing city staff members to explore such a purchase.

But some Los Angeles officials objected to the maintenance costs the city would incur if it took over the canyon, Cardoso said. One official suggested that residents be required to form an assessment district to cover such expenses.

The issue was resolved in December, however, when the conservancy agreed to maintain and patrol the acreage. A month later the City Council agreed to buy the land and transfer ownership to that agency.

Conservancy spokeswoman Plotkin said her staff has pledged to clear hazardous brush and debris from the site. When money becomes available, the agency also plans to improve the canyon's trail system.

Vodhanel said neighbors have also vowed to make the canyon a more appealing site for nature hikes.

"It's very hard to get into," she said. "It's badly overgrown, and it's full of poison oak. And there's a lot of trash in there. We want to clean it up so that a year from now, it looks a lot different."

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