CALABASAS — Mayor Dennis Washburn believes his city is exactly 60.3 acres too small--the size of a smallish but extremely popular notch of land coveted by Calabasas but owned by Los Angeles.
Calabasas is positioning itself to make a second bid to overtake the only portion of the folksy, lumber-fenced Old West throwback known as Old Town Calabasas that it does not own. The area contains the anchors of Calabasas' historical and cultural identities--Sagebrush Cantina, the county's second-most-popular watering hole, and Leonis Adobe, the historical gateway to Old Town.
A long-range annexation plan is one of a list of items Calabasas' new city manager will ask the City Council on Wednesday to make a top priority.
While the issue teeters, Bob McCord III, whose Sagebrush Cantina attracts yuppie socialite get-togethers, business executives' meetings and chrome-and-leather biker rallies, continues to do business on a corner that pays taxes to one city but identifies with another.
"I got 5,000 people a week coming through my door," said McCord, whose restaurant is a key property in annexation talks. "If I got parking trouble on one side, I get a call from Los Angeles. If I have a parking problem on another side, I get a call from Calabasas. My water belongs to DWP, my gas belongs to Las Virgenes. If somebody gets hurt, nobody knows who to call--the county paramedics a block up the street or [Los Angeles] city paramedics a mile away."
To absorb the whole strip, City Manager Don Duckworth, who started his job a week ago, will need to convince three prime properties to abandon Los Angeles for more cozy dealings with Calabasas, primarily tax breaks.
The two cities would have to agree to any realignment--and Los Angeles has said repeatedly that it does not want to give up the lucrative businesses--unless the property owners and the city of Calabasas initiate action with the Local Agency Formation Commission to change the borders and circumvent Los Angeles city authorities.
Calabasas officials are going to the property owners first, knowing Los Angeles will never give away the more than $500,000 in annual tax revenue from the Motion Picture & Television Fund retirement home, a luxury condominium complex and Sagebrush Cantina in Old Town.
City Banks on Getting Old Town
When the city of 27,000 in the western San Fernando Valley was established nine years ago, founders sought to annex a stretch of Los Angeles that included part of Old Town, one of the area's main attractions. With nothing to gain in the deal and money to lose, Los Angeles officials refused to give up the property, but Calabasas invested nearly $2 million in developing Old Town anyway, with hopes of eventually acquiring the remainder.
When the City Council meets Wednesday--in a City Hall sandwiched between two parcels of Los Angeles County land--the council will have annexation on its mind, Duckworth said.
"There have been isolated annexation efforts in downtown and areas Calabasas has historically been interested in," Duckworth said. "But I'm thinking we ought to have some long-range program, not only for our city but also for Agoura Hills, Westlake and Malibu."
Two major advances have raised the stakes since Los Angeles city officials declined requests to change its borders, most recently in 1998: Old Town has grown into a bustling draw, and the 40-acre retirement home has announced plans to expand. Calabasas says it wants to unite civic services and add to the Old Town atmosphere.
"There are lots of reasons for unity and, unfortunately, lots of opportunity for confusion," Mayor Washburn said. "We did improvements on [L.A.'s] property in order to provide the ambience there. It's been 3 1/2 years, and they're not interested in putting in any traffic control to make it a smoother-running public facility. We're in position to make that commitment and investment."
But Los Angeles City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski argues that Calabasas is out to take over tax revenues generated by the cantina and usage fees from the retirement home. A 1994 city report estimated that Sagebrush Cantina produces more than $150,000 in tax revenue to the city.
"We looked at different options that would keep tax equity neutral," Miscikowski said. "But Calabasas was interested in all or nothing. That's why it stays in limbo. I'm not going to take tax value away from my city and give it to another city."
McCord has been on both sides of the annexation debate. On Sundays, especially during football season, his six-acre Sagebrush Cantina is the night life of Calabasas. It has the second-busiest bar in the county, based on tax revenue, and a Calabasas address, although it technically lies within Woodland Hills. Gladstone's 4 Fish in Pacific Palisades is the leading bar in tax revenue.