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Dispute Over Canyon Oaks Project Drags On : Development: The plan for homes and a golf course has been static for 14 years, as foes and supporters continue battle.

July 04, 1993|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOPANGA — Who picked up the tab for lunch was not on the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission's agenda last week, but the question nonetheless intrigued many of the 200 or so people who crowded the board's downtown hearing room.

As testimony delved into the mysteries of bobcat migration and storm water runoff as they relate to a proposed Topanga Canyon residential project, conversations focused on the 30 men in T-shirts and jeans in the center of the room and whether anyone was paying them to be there--and feeding them afterward.

Wearing stickers that read "Canyon Oaks Yes," the men are members of various building trades unions and they came to show their support for plans to build a private golf course and 97 homes in Topanga's Summit Valley area. The plans are the subject of one of the longest-running and most acrimonious land-use disputes in county history.

Not that they hope some day to play the fairways or live in the houses. These men, who said nobody paid them to be there or bought their lunches, support the project because they want to help build it--to drive bulldozers, saw boards and pound nails.

But opponents of the Canyon Oaks project--first proposed under the name Montevideo in 1978--never want to see it built and they resented the men who sat silently, sometimes dozing, during hour upon hour of testimony.

"How would you like it if we came to your community and told you what to build?" a project opponent asked a couple of the men as they bought sodas during a break in testimony. "They are a bunch of millionaires. They don't care about you."

The men shrugged, sipped their sodas and meandered back to the hearing room.

Hours later, after the commission discontinued public comments until September, the accusations were harder to ignore. "One of your guys said whoever feeds him, that's whose side he's on," one woman shrieked at a group of men smoking cigarettes.

One man shouted back: "I ain't a . . . dog that gets fed."

As the mood soured, sheriff's deputies moved gently forward to encourage people to move out of the courtyard and onto the sidewalk. "We're exercising our rights," someone shouted.

"You're exercising your vocal chords," the deputy mumbled.

This is another typical day in the life of Canyon Oaks, a project that has stirred up so much controversy in earthy Topanga Canyon that accusations fly fast and furious. The debate has degenerated into a circus of rhetoric and innuendo.

Divided loyalties in the community have turned neighbor against neighbor. Some residents want the project--and the $500,000 the developer has promised to donate for amenities such as a community center or hiking trails--but others want the land left as it is.

Letters in local papers claim opponents to the project are "regurgitating the same old, 'Oh,-no,-they're-going-to-kill-the-oaks- and-critters,' rhetoric they have heaved upon the county for 14 years."

For nearly everyone involved, it is getting harder to keep cool.

Planning Commissioner Robert Ryan found that out when he remarked: "I don't think this developer is motivated by greed as much as he is filling a need."

Boos and derisive laughter filled the auditorium.

"When you laugh at the guy who has the vote, you're really goring your own ox," Ryan said to more boos. "If you smart-alecks would shut up, you might be better off."

It has been this way for months, as the project winds its way through the county's planning bureaucracy. Both sides have launched media offensives to gain sympathy for their plight.

There is no love lost on either side.

At a Planning Commission tour of the 257-acre property earlier this year, the developer refused to allow opponents on the property. So commission Chairman Richard Wulliger decided not to allow developers to tag along either, and commissioners wandered along a dusty trail unescorted.

After commissioners left the site in a van, the developer held a small news conference. But that too turned sour when one of the project's designers told a local photographer who was angling for a better shot: "Stop taking pictures of my crotch."

Then, less than a month later, the developer went on the offensive to counter opposition claims that the project would wreck Topanga Canyon. Developers distributed photographs of what they claim is illegal grading and improper construction in other parts of the canyon.

They also produced tests they contend show that bacteria levels in Topanga Creek are already above state levels because of leaking septic tanks and illegal dumping by Topanga residents.

Recently, opponents used that study to their advantage, telling commissioners that if the creek is indeed above acceptable bacterial levels, that is all the more reason additional runoff should not be allowed.

Hearings on the project have been punctuated by snickers and chuckles as opponents testified and hisses and chortles when supporters take the stand. When one woman limped from her seat at the Planning Commission's June 23 hearing to tell why she opposes the project, another woman whispered skeptically to a companion: "Oh, she's got a cane, too. That's good. "

"This has been going on for 14 years," said Brooks Roddan, spokesman for Canyon Oaks.

And it is unlikely to end anytime soon.

Planning Commission hearings on the project have been continued. Regardless of how the commission ultimately votes, its decision will likely be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

Even then, the final decision may rest with the courts.

"It's crazy," Roddan said.

And in the end, there was no proof who paid for those lunches.

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