LAKE VIEW TERRACE — It's been called a buyout, a payoff, a slush fund and a bribe.
But whatever it's labeled, most residents of this eclectic area of horse ranches and blight say that taking $5 million from the city of Los Angeles in exchange for living within smelling distance of Lopez Canyon Landfill was like making a deal with the devil.
Established in 1991 when the landfill's operating permit was extended another five years, the so-called amenities fund remains the only one of its kind in the county and is widely considered a failed social experiment.
Most of the money is gone--spent not on remedying the odor, noise and traffic of the landfill, but on things such as buying a Pacoima warehouse for a police anti-gang program, college scholarships, and a traffic signal. And though most of those responsible for allocating the money say they tried to spend it wisely, neighbors of the 400-acre dump say they have not been compensated in any way for their hardship.
"The amenities monies are a joke," said Barbara Hubbard, former chair of the Lopez Canyon Community Amenities Trust Fund advisory committee.
Offering homeowners money to ease the pain of a "locally unpopular land use"--or LULU in the vernacular of urban planners--has been tried in various ways in several states and generally hasn't worked very well, experts say.
"This country has been very original about inventing these kinds of payoffs," said Frank Popper, an urban studies professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "It's a lot better to try to mitigate a LULU than to compensate communities for them, which is simply just paying them off."
A better approach, in Popper's view, could include lowering property taxes in the landfill's immediate neighborhood, where property values are perceived to be lowered by the dump. Such a deal is in place at a landfill near Washington, D.C., said Popper, who coined the term \o7 LULU.\f7
In contrast, he cited a rural community in Virginia whose residents were initially tempted by a cash offer from a hazardous-waste disposal company with plans for a dump. But as word spread of the proposed consolation prize, skepticism and resentment prevailed, and a tentative agreement fell through.
"In these kinds of situations, nobody's happy with the results," Popper said. "It ends up feeling like a bribe, and the money isn't enough."
Similar doubts are spreading belatedly through Lake View Terrace. Controversy over its 20-year-old landfill has arisen anew as public works officials this month recommended extending its use for at least another year and possibly mollifying neighbors with more cash. The landfill's operating permit expires next February.
The original Lopez Canyon amenities funds--created with the promise that no further landfill extensions would be approved--have been used on a potpourri of causes with the broad goal of improving the area's quality of life. But many say the fund, which was unprecedented at the time in Los Angeles, has done nothing to relieve the environmental problems and emotional friction created by the last city-owned garbage dump in operation.
Uses have included summer day camps, painting an elementary school, grants to a local garden club and baseball league, and buying a new traffic signal to alleviate congestion near a popular swap meet. In addition, $886,000 was spent to buy a deteriorated warehouse in Pacoima for the Los Angeles Police Department's Jeopardy anti-gang program, and $1 million was set aside for a proposed library.
Few contend that the money has been misspent. But many, including City Councilman Richard Alarcon, say it was used for improvements that cannot be considered amenities or even extras, but instead are crucial parts of a well-functioning community.
"It was not an effective trade. It was a buy-off of conscience," said Alarcon, who added that he will not even consider asking for more amenities funds if the landfill's use continues.
In some cases, the money was spent on projects that would have been funded through conventional channels, Alarcon and others said. Building a new library in the Lake View Terrace area, for example, was a priority for the Los Angeles Library Department even before $1 million in amenities funds was set aside for that purpose, advisory board members and library officials said.
"Give the money to us or not, it made no difference," said Hubbard. "We ended up paying for things the city would have done anyway."
Each expenditure was approved by the City Council, they said, adding that such improvements might not have come about for years had residents waited for the wheels of government to turn in their direction.
The darker side of such funds is their discretionary nature and the potential to create division over how the money is spent, said Popper and Barbara Fine, former chair of the city's Solid Waste Citizens Advisory Group.