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Cleanup Begins in Pasadena Glen Basin : Environment: County drops opposition and begins effort to keep debris from being washed down onto community by heavy rains. But officials say it is a onetime arrangement.

January 09, 1994|RICHARD WINTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PASADENA — After 14 years of rejecting homeowners' demands to clean out the debris basin above the rustic canyon community of Pasadena Glen, Los Angeles County officials have changed their minds, saying they feel obligated to help protect the homes left standing in the wake of October's firestorm.

On Tuesday, county workers began cleaning out the basin, which was filled to the brim with rocks, tree trunks and other debris that had accumulated since 1980.

In the event of heavy rains, mud and debris might overflow the basin and swamp the community.

"The (county) supervisors OKd (the cleanup) in the morning and our crews were out there by the afternoon," said Donna Guyovich, county public works spokeswoman.

The county paid $129,676 to hire the crews, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid an additional $389,629 for the cleanup.

Residents have been battling the county in court for years over who is responsible for flood control in the unincorporated area above Pasadena.

The feud began 24 years ago after debris poured into the canyon. Pasadena Glen residents agreed in 1969 that if the county built a debris basin and made other flood control improvements, they would clean out and maintain the basin.

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In 1987, the Pasadena Glen Improvement Assn., a homeowners group filed a lawsuit, charging that the county was responsible for flood control. They charged that residents' earlier agreement to clean out the basin was an unfair burden on them. Four years later, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge said the 1969 agreement was unenforceable but stopped short of saying who was responsible for flood control.

After the October fire consumed 27 of Pasadena Glen's 62 homes and increased the chances of mudslides in the coming storm season, both sides say they have put aside their differences.

"This disaster brought us together," said Steve Schindler, vice president of the improvement association.

Although county officials agree, they insist that the cleanup is a one-time arrangement, and they do not concede they have responsibility for flood control in Pasadena Glen.

Better relations between residents and the county have helped ease homeowners' fears that they may not be allowed to rebuild. A county task force has asked community leaders for their views on how to allow rebuilding to proceed.

Pasadena Glen homeowners believe federal officials played a role in the county's change of heart on the debris basin. In November, Pasadena Glen residents were among fire victims who met with President Clinton at Pasadena Presbyterian Church. They told Clinton about their fight to get the county to clean up the debris basin, and he promised to help them.

"The county was getting pressure from FEMA to sponsor the cleanout," said Linda Williams, president of the improvement association, who has participated in the county task force meetings.

Guyovich disagrees. "Because debris knowingly could threaten structures, the county decided to do the work," she said.

Schindler, 53, a Caltech astrophysicist, said that although last week's agreement is not a long-term solution to the dispute over flood control, at least the remaining homes will be protected this winter.

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Over the years residents have laid thousands of sandbags to prevent flooding. John McPhee, in his 1989 book "The Control of Nature," described the neighborhood as one "that would rather defy nature than live without it."

Schindler and other homeowners who lost their homes in the wildfire that began Oct. 27 vow to keep defying nature.

The county task force's preliminary plans suggest that all the homes could be rebuilt on raised foundations, he said. Although the county has placed a moratorium on building while the task force studies Pasadena Glen, Schindler expects to pick up his building permit in March after the task force presents its report to supervisors.

Guyovich, the county spokeswoman, said no decision has been made on how many houses can be rebuilt or whether they may be as large as before.

The task force is still working with the county Fire Department to create a turnaround for firetrucks, which may prevent one or two houses from being rebuilt. The canyon has just one narrow main road that winds back and forth across the stream.

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