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South L.A. Gardeners Win Round in Effort to Keep Plots

Judge allows 350 families who cultivate a 14-acre parcel to keep growing their food and flowers until ownership issues are resolved.

March 17, 2004|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

The community gardeners of South Los Angeles, who were ordered off their lush, vegetable-filled plots earlier this year to make way for warehouses or a cold storage unit, won a reprieve Tuesday.

Superior Court Judge David P. Yaffe issued a preliminary injunction allowing the 350 families who grow food and flowers on the 14-acre parcel at 41st and Alameda streets to stay, either until their lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles and developer Ralph Horowitz is resolved, or until the city follows its own required procedures for selling surplus property.

Tezozomoc , who grows corn, tomatoes, cilantro and bananas on a plot his father farmed before him praised the decision, but said it was "unfortunate that poor people have to go to these extremes to have the city charter enforced."

But Horowitz expressed disappointment with the judge's decision, saying the land is rightly his. "I just have to let the farmers stay there and I can't throw them out, no matter what they do," he said.

The gardeners, most with annual household incomes of between $12,000 and $20,000, have been cultivating the 14-acre parcel for more than a decade. It has blossomed into one of the country's largest urban gardens, tucked amid the industrial sprawl of southeastern Los Angeles.

Last summer, however, the city announced that it had sold the land back to Horowitz, the original owner, and that the gardeners would have to go.

City officials say they had no choice. The city had forced Horowitz to sell the land in the 1980s for use as a city trash-burning site. But the incinerator was never built, and in 1994 the Harbor Department acquired the land for use in building the Alameda Corridor. Only a small portion was developed, and the gardeners were allowed to continue tilling the soil.

Horowitz sued, saying he should have been able to buy the land back once officials discarded their plan for a trash incinerator.

In August, City Council members voted to sell the land back to Horowitz as part of a lawsuit settlement.

Outraged, the gardeners began a campaign of protests and demonstrations to pressure the council to save their land. Several council members expressed regret, but said there was nothing they could do.

So the gardeners turned to private attorneys, who filed a lawsuit arguing that the city had not followed its own administrative code and charter when it made the deal to settle the lawsuit and sell Horowitz the land, and therefore the sale should be null and void.

Matt Szabo, a spokesman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, said the city no longer had any say over what Horowitz did with the land.

The gardeners' attorneys dispute the notion that there is nothing city officials can do.

"The city did all this in secret, directly contrary to what the charter says.... It is shocking," said Dan Stormer, one of the attorneys for South Central Farmers Feeding Families. Stormer also argued that the city had sold the land to Horowitz for many million dollars less than it was worth.

Those issues must still be decided by a judge, but Yaffe ruled Tuesday that the farmers can stay on the land until the trial -- probably several more months at least.

"It's an incredible victory," said Ron Kaye, also a lawyer for the farmers.

Attorneys for Horowitz said they would probably appeal the injunction.

"The big loser today was me, because the city has my money and I have to sit there and carry the expenses on this piece of property while the farmers use it for nothing," Horowitz said.

Times staff writer Erin Ailworth contributed to this report.

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