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Land Trust Seeks to Purchase South L.A. Community Garden

April 15, 2006|Cynthia H. Cho | Times Staff Writer

Years of legal battles over a community garden in South Los Angeles may finally end if a deal for the Trust for the Public Land to purchase the property comes to fruition.

The land has been entangled in one legal wrangle after another since the mid-1980s. The latest involves the pending eviction of about 350 low-income families, mostly emigrants from Mexico and Central America, who grow fruits and vegetables uncommon in the U.S. -- such as spinach-like quelite, a pear-shaped light green squash called chayote and prickly pear cactus.

Bob Reid, Los Angeles area director for the national nonprofit, said Friday that the trust had signed a contract this week with landowner Ralph Horowitz that gives it the option to buy the property.

The trust would buy about 10 of the parcel's 14 acres, Reid said. And Horowitz is set to give the remainder to the city to build soccer fields.

Horowitz said Friday that he would have used the property for an industrial development, but agreed to give the nonprofit the option to buy the land because he thought its plans had merit.

"They agreed to turn it into a public-use property, to change it around from the way it's being run now," he said. "Now, it's not for public use. It's a bunch of individuals who have individual plots and use it indefinitely for themselves."

Reid said it was too early to determine if the organization would change the way the community garden operates. But, he added, if the Trust for Public Land acquires the garden, the farmers would not be evicted. He said the nonprofit hopes to "preserve and enhance" the community garden.

"We really want to grow the community," he said.

He would not say how much the trust offered for the property -- only that it was fair market value -- and added that the trust has 30 days to raise the funds. He said the organization is looking for donors to contribute to the purchase price.

The legal disputes began in the 1980s when the city used eminent domain to purchase the 14 acres from Horowitz in order to build a trash-burning facility. But after community activists defeated the incineration plant, the city loaned the property to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which turned it into a community garden after the 1992 riots.

The city sold the parcel to the Harbor Department in 1994 as part of the Alameda Corridor development. Only a portion was used and the garden remained. But Horowitz sued over the sale, arguing that he should have been given a chance to buy back the land when the city scrapped the incinerator project.

In a private meeting in August 2003, the city sold the 14 acres back to Horowitz for $5 million.

The farmers and their supporters then sued the city for what they believed was an unfair and secretive deal.

That, in turn, led to a Superior Court order halting the planned demolition of the garden in 2004, but that order was reversed by an appeals court that summer. The farmers then petitioned the state Supreme Court, which in October declined to hear the case.

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