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Retiree Leads Campaign for a Mountain of a Flag

July 04, 2002|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From his backyard patio, Sonny Suarez gazes up at Conejo Peak with a certain dissatisfaction, like Michelangelo sizing up a blank ceiling.

"There should be a flag on top, and it's gotta be monumental," he says. "In fact, there should be a monumental flag on top of a majestic spot somewhere in every state. We've got to send a message to the terrorists."

At his kitchen table, he opens a folder bursting with letters to officials, pleas to the media, phone numbers of prospective donors. A retired warehouse manager for an airline, Suarez, 61, has made it his mission to hoist Old Glory over the 1,814-foot mountain as a memorial to the fallen of Sept. 11.

But to raise a giant flag, you have to pull some strings. While Suarez has gotten the Thousand Oaks City Council to order a study of the idea, he will also have to deal with neighbors who prefer their mountains monumentless and officials who may insist on patriotic traditions as American as the environmental impact report.

Lighted at night, the flag would be at least 600 square feet--the size of a one-bedroom apartment. It would wave from a pole nine stories high. More than 189,000 motorists on the Ventura Freeway would see it daily; atop a pinnacle just south of the Conejo Grade, it would be visible 40 miles around, Suarez said.

"You got your pole, you got your flag, you got your foundation," he said. "What's the problem? You're not going to tell me there's some rare frog up there, are you?"

Rare frogs and prickly little plants have thwarted far bigger projects on Conejo Valley hillsides. But that doesn't deter Suarez, who said: "You can take the plants and the animals and wrap them all in a ribbon and they wouldn't be accomplishing anything compared to what we'd be doing up there with a simple flag."

The city's study is to be completed in September, a month when any argument over the Stars and Stripes would be particularly sensitive.

"It's not as simple as a guy coming in and saying, 'Let's put up a flag: Yes or no?' " said Scott Mitnick, a deputy city manager overseeing the study.

For one thing, he said, the flag would be planted in land designated as open space. A road--estimates range from a few hundred yards to a mile--would be carved up the slope from the access easements beneath Southern California Edison power lines. And, if the flag is to be visible far and wide, officials in neighboring Camarillo and the Ventura County supervisors might also want to weigh in on the plan.

Other city officials reeled off additional obstacles.

"Who would be liable for someone getting hurt up there?" asked City Councilman Dennis Gillette, who introduced Suarez's proposal to the council in February as "a concept deserving of thorough evaluation."

"Who would maintain it?" Gillette asked. "Are we sure it would withstand very strong winds? What would happen if the solar lighting system failed and it went dark at night, violating flag etiquette? Will environmental documents be needed? My support hasn't waned, but all these questions have to be asked and answered well in advance."

Then, of course, there is the estimated cost of $400,000. Calling homebuilders with projects around his Dos Vientos subdivision, Suarez said he has secured "verbal commitments" for donations. But how many will come through, and for how much, won't be seen until the dawn's early light.

"I told him it sounds like a very good idea and that we would participate," said Debbie Aronson, planning manager for Warmington Homes California. "But I can't really tell you how much we would give. We just don't know at all."

Suarez came up with the idea as he focused on the mountain during a bittersweet jog on the morning of Sept. 11. Ever since, he has been alert to possibilities for advancing the plan. He has written to Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) and to President Bush. He has called Naval Base Ventura County to see if the Seabees could bring up heavy equipment to install the flag's pedestal.

Leaving Las Vegas one night, he noticed a huge flag unfurling on a pole towering above an Arco gas station.

"I said, 'Bingo!' " he recalled. " 'Just what I need.' "

After impassioned entreaties from Suarez, Arco's parent company, BP, is "seriously considering" donating a flagpole, said BP spokesman Paul Langland.

"It doesn't quite fit what we traditionally do, but it would be a patriotic gesture," Langland said.

The pole would cost about $20,000, Suarez said.

If the promised donations for the monument materialize, Thousand Oaks Mayor Ed Masry said he is all for it.

"I'm certainly in favor of putting up the flag wherever we can," he said.

Asked whether it would violate a city ban on ridgeline development, he said, "I don't think anyone would object to a flag on the ridgeline. We'll deal with that once the financing is squared away."

However, the city already has received some notes of protest.

Diane and Gary Anderson shot off e-mails to each council member, arguing that saying yes to the flag would also force the city to approve cell phone antennas, satellite receivers and other structures in areas that are supposed to be untouched.

"If the land is indeed designated as open space, then it should be protected from any development, whether it be a flagpole, a cut-out of Mom or a replica of her apple pie," their message said. "We should all remember that well-intentioned ideas are not necessarily good ideas."

Statements such as that strike Suarez as somewhere between misguided and unpatriotic.

"I absolutely agree with laws about development on ridgelines," he said. "But we're talking about the American flag here. I guarantee you, when people see this from the road, they'll be in tears. I know I'll be."

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