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Flee, but Suburbia Will Track You Down

November 25, 2005|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

Ramona Merrifield sat near the dirt drive of her mountain home, agonizing about the thousands of houses set to crop up near her small community, where wood stoves still heat homes and skunks roam free.

Lytle Creek, where residents balk at installing a single streetlight, is about to be inundated by a 2,000-home development approved for the mouth of San Bernardino County's Lytle Creek Canyon.

"In some ways, our time has come," said Merrifield. "In some ways, this will take away our way of life."

The local animus toward the Lytle Creek North project is a familiar Southern California story -- residents flee tract homes for cottages near hills and streams, only to wake up years later with suburbia in their backyards.

"I'm right back in Woodland Hills or Riverside, just at a different elevation. It's like the city follows people who tried to escape," said Robert Reed of Save Our Forest Assn., an environmental advocacy group in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Just this year, several Southland locales have struggled with suburbia's push into once-remote foothills and mountains. Opponents of a Los Angeles Basin project paraded an empty coffin in a hearse to portray the death of open space in the Verdugo Mountains, where the Canyon Hills development was approved in October. And the Orange City Council this month permitted 4,000 homes to be built near rural canyons, though foes of the project had parked a bulldozer in front of City Hall before the vote.

"You know what happened to the West when everybody came out in covered wagons -- it was the end of the West as the folks who lived there knew it," said Marilyn Schultz of the Inland Valley Assn. of Realtors.

In the eastern San Gabriel Mountains, Lytle Creek old-timers still crowd post office benches to gossip, and, even as one-bedroom home prices leap to almost $300,000, not a single traffic light dangles between treetops. One main road cuts through Lytle Creek's neighborhoods. Signs warn that rocks and mud may be on the roadway. The town of several hundred residents is flanked by wildfire-charred hillsides, and is hemmed in by the San Bernardino National Forest. Some basements still seep from last winter's rains.

"If we're not burning or flooding, we're shaking," said Peggy Masters, a retired school district receptionist who has steeled herself against nature's mood swings since 1976, when she first spent weekends in a Lytle Creek cabin.

"We're people who don't live in cracker box, look-alike houses. We have an element of that hide-out-from-the-law culture. Lytle Creek has a reputation for where they dump the bodies ... but now it's mostly people who want to get away, live with nature, all that. My husband needed to clean up bear poop the other day."

Merrifield followed her first husband to the canyon's Happy Jack section in 1958, when few homes had televisions -- they couldn't get reception. She met her current spouse, Richard, at his home down the street, where Merrifield now grows poppies, larkspur and the milkweed that lures monarch butterflies.

"Some people come out here with their Chamber of Commerce attitude: We can get streetlights, [piped] water; we can get all those things. We don't want them," she said.

Consider the toilets. A sewer system, constructed in the 1980s, replaced the community's colossal holding tank and the man called the "honey-dipper" who cleaned it. The arrival of the sewer bitterly divided the community. Some longtime residents feared it would write the area's obituary.

In 2001, suburbia was proposed near the canyon. Lytle Development Co., based in Anaheim, inched closer to approval for more than 2,000 homes near Interstate 15. The plan, in its present form, includes an elementary school site, two parks and hiking and horse trails on about 640 acres.

County planners eyed the project skeptically. Neighboring Rialto was alarmed at the "leap-frog development," the county planning commission report said. The site is loaded with construction-quality sand and gravel that would go untapped. Pounding rains -- or fires or mudslides or earthquakes -- could choke escape routes and trap residents.

In addition, the endangered San Bernardino kangaroo rat lives near the canyon, along with two dozen other rare species, the report said. Four environmental groups sued the developer, partly over the loss of habitat for the animals. They settled two years ago; the company agreed that builders would preserve about 300 acres as open space.

Recently Lytle Creek residents also learned that a developer and Rialto had taken the first steps toward a 6,500-home project near the canyon.

Marie Johnson, who owns the Animal Crackers restaurant at Lytle Creek's hub, said the new houses could boost business. She said she barely makes it in the winter when only residents frequent her eatery, which hosts Sunday brunches and the occasional Elvis impersonator.

"The locals still think coffee should be 50 cents," she laughed.

County supervisors applauded the Lytle Development Co. project as a model community. The plan they approved calls for builders to provide a fire station, reservoir, stone and concrete flood levee, sewage treatment plant, traffic signals, and to widen neighboring Glen Helen Parkway.

"I understand people are frustrated, but the demographics of Southern California are changing," said Catherine Anderson, a Lytle Development project assistant. "It's similar to Orange County, which used to be strawberry fields and oranges until people came. Hopefully, we can do smart development."

But Marilyn Roach, a teacher who moved to the area a decade ago, winces when she sees the big stop signs recently planted at Lytle Creek intersections.

"If you lived up there and thought there was a chance civilization could ruin it, you'd be sad, too," she said.

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