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Residents Fight a Flood of Commuters

Encino: Homeowners are at wits' end, but drivers accuse them of elitism.

April 28, 2002|CAITLIN LIU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The narrow roads winding past the hedge-lined estates of the Encino hills seem an unlikely setting for an urban traffic hell.

But just wait until rush hour.

That's when commuters from the San Fernando Valley's flatlands flood into the hills, anxious for a faster way across the Santa Monica Mountains.

They come with engines roaring, brakes screeching and horns blaring. Some gesture rudely at residents struggling to get out of their own driveways. And on occasion, a four-wheeled invader will vault a curb.

"They're nasty, nasty people," said Margery Grossman, pointing to where out-of-control cars had plowed into her daughter's Saab and two brick walls in front of her home on Ballina Canyon Road. "They don't think of the fact that people live here."

With average commute times getting longer, many Southland neighborhoods have seen their peace and quiet shattered by shortcut-seeking motorists.

Each weekday, more than 120,000 commuters use residential streets to traverse the Santa Monica Mountains between the Valley and the rest of Los Angeles. In the last 25 years, such traffic has grown about 40%, said Yadi Hashemi, transportation engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

One area suffering the brunt of this is this 4.5-square-mile swath of the Encino hills. The problem is so bad that the city is holding a vote-by-mail referendum on possible solutions. But the referendum is also fueling an uproar among the many drivers and nearby residents who don't live in the hills. They call attempts to restrict traffic elitist.

"Is it because some of these homes are more valuable than others that they can prevent people from using public streets?" asked Carol Glushon, who lives in a more modest Encino neighborhood north of Ventura Boulevard. "The residents there don't own the streets."

The Transportation Department has mailed ballots to 4,800 households in the Encino hills. Residents have until May 3 to cast their votes.

The changes would attempt to restrict the number of cars heading south into the hills along three miles of Ventura Boulevard. Residents will be asked whether the city should make traffic lights stay red longer, install no-turn signs and add a left-turn light at a San Diego Freeway onramp.

The department requires two-thirds approval by at least 40% of the surrounding households. The balloting is somewhat informal; it is not regulated by city election laws.

It is the city's third and by far largest traffic referendum, also believed to be the biggest in the country. From Portland, Ore., to Dayton, Ohio, such neighborhood polls are becoming a popular means of gauging support for "traffic calming" measures such as speed bumps, roundabouts and street closures.

"You want to make sure [residents] are happy with the change," said Reid Ewing, author of the 1999 Federal Highway Administration book "Traffic Calming: State of the Practice."

In the 1950s, transit planners saw the need for more freeways through the Santa Monicas, including a Reseda Freeway just west of the Encino hills. It was among the many that were envisioned for the Los Angeles region but later abandoned because of neighborhood opposition, among other reasons.

As a result, traffic continued to pour into the residential streets of the hills. Now, an estimated 70% of the cars on Encino hills roads are cut-through traffic, according to the Transportation Department.

"This neighborhood has become a freeway alternative," said Pauline Chan, a senior transportation engineer for the city.

Artie Harris, a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, pointed to his flower bed, which has twice been smashed by cars that skidded over the sidewalk. Up and down Calneva Drive, trees have been toppled and utility poles rammed.

"Motorcycle guy couldn't negotiate curve and ended up in the bushes, right there," said Harris, motioning across the street from his home of 31 years. "A car rolled a few times over there," he continued, directing a finger farther downthe street.

Then there was the Corvette that plowed into his brother's parked sedan. The driver came "this close" to getting decapitated, said Harris, holding his hands inches apart.

As he spoke, a neighbor's electric gate slid open and a black Lexus nosed out, causing a sport utility vehicle speeding up the hill to screech to a halt.

"Did you see that?" Harris shouted. "She just missed getting hit! There are near misses constantly."

Some mountain-crossing primary roads, such as Sepulveda, Laurel Canyon and Beverly Glen boulevards, are expected to shoulder heavy traffic. These so-called secondary highways are relatively straight and wide. Many of their homes sit far apart, behind dense foliage, and have driveways that feed onto side roads.

Most roads in the Encino hills are more like capillaries. They were never intended to carry big traffic loads. The streets swoop this way and that, with blind curves and steep climbs.

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