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Trail Advocates Say 'Whoa' to Home Projects

Land: Activists battle development in the San Gabriels' foothills. From Claremont to Altadena, bids to save mountain paths and wildlife are booming.

January 27, 2002|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They converged Saturday on an Altadena park on horseback and booted foot, some 200 horse people and hikers united by a goal: Save the trails.

They proclaimed their abhorrence of locked gates and asphalt, agreed that the danger of riding horses down busy streets gives them the jitters, and uttered the words "trail break" as if they were cussing.

Theirs is a crusade that has become more urgent among conservationists along the San Gabriel Mountain foothills. From Claremont to Altadena, land conservancies recently have been born and new coalitions formed to preserve the mountain slopes from luxury housing tracts and other developments creeping deeper and deeper into forest land.

Sierra Madre this month rejected a private high school in its foothills, and recently Azusa, after voting down a 1,600-home development, decided to sponsor a contest for urban design that would best protect its mountain bluffs and wildlife.

"Parts of trails just don't exist anymore. They're gone. They're grown over. They're over," Tracy Sullivan, a leader of Altadena Equestrian Resources, shouted over a loudspeaker as the horseback riders gathered. "We can't be riding horses and competing with cars."

During their demonstration ride and hike on a crisp but hazy morning, these mountain lovers called on Los Angeles County officials and the developer of 272 new, red-tile-roof houses to make good on long-ago promises to improve their local park and maintain access to public trails.

In Altadena, an ethnically diverse community of 42,610 just 20 minutes northeast of downtown Los Angeles, equestrians, mountain bikers, hikers and conservation groups intend to sound loud the alarm over their disappearing trails and aging equestrian facilities.

"We have to demonstrate and show that this community wants to preserve it rural atmosphere," Sullivan said.

Their frustration is focused on what has long been a flash point of controversy in Altadena: La Vina, the housing project.

The terra cotta development is in its last phase of completion after 15 torturous years of debates, protests, lawsuits and approval by the county Board of Supervisors in 1992.

The project has changed hands at least once, and is being completed by Brookfield Homes in Costa Mesa.

The Altadena coalition, which includes many longtime residents who fought against the project years ago, says the developer has failed to deliver on pledges that included protecting existing trails, redesigning others and installing rider-controlled traffic signals.

To them, the development is one massive trail break that paved over a wide swath of their beloved Altadena Crest Trail.

"Yes, I feel sad in a way when I see it," said Camille Dudley, a longtime Altadena horse owner who opposed La Vina. "But we are not defeated. A lot of what we do has brought attention to the trails."

Ted McKibben, a vice president with Brookfield, said the goal of his company "is to cooperate with the county of Los Angeles and to ensure that all required improvements that were agreed to under the entitlement are honored."

But just what exactly was agreed to back in 1992 is about to come under scrutiny.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district includes Altadena and who voted for the project 10 years ago, intends to call for an audit of La Vina to determine whether the developer has met all the conditions of approval.

"I was appalled to discover that numerous conditions have not yet been fulfilled," states the motion he intends to introduce Tuesday.

These include street improvements, questions over trail linkages and access, and confusion over construction of a parking lot for Loma Alta Park, said Jennifer Plaisted, Antonovich's senior deputy in Pasadena.

"We need to get to the bottom of this," she said. "Basically, it comes down to: The community says one thing, the [county] departments say one thing . . . and we don't know all the answers."

Back on the mountain, the problems are as plain as a cutoff trail. One sign, in particular, points west to the "Altadena" trail, which abruptly ends at a paved road 20 yards away.

It's not just big new developments, said horse owner Bonnie Hedrick, pointing westward.

"It's the rains that washed out a section here. It's that house that blocks access over there," she said. "Over time it gets eaten away."

The Altadenans also want to help revise plans for a new gymnasium at the park, which they believe dangerously collides with equestrian interests. Currently, the plan calls for a horse trail link, a pedestrian drop-off lane and the gym to be squeezed onto one parcel.

And they want the county to improve the park's riding arena, which was deemed too small for formal riding events. Such community gatherings as a Juneteenth celebration and Black Rodeo have moved elsewhere.

Sullivan and her group fear that this will slowly erode their sense of community.

"What has united us is our love of the mountains," she said, adding that in Altadena, residents can walk out their back doors in search of seasonal streams and verdant gullies.

"The trails are integral to keeping this community together."

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