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Horse Owners Are Bridling at Changes

In Sylmar, in the northeast San Fernando Valley, residents see increases in development, and in population, as threats to their equestrian-friendly lifestyle.

March 17, 2006|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

It used to be a place where a middle-class family could own a small house on a large parcel with a horse corral out back and a few chickens and roosters running around the yard.

But these days in Sylmar, the human population is going up while the number of horses is dropping. And this has some longtime residents concerned that a way of life in this foothill community on the northeastern edge of the San Fernando Valley is disappearing.

Even its name sounds pastoral, derived from a combination of the word "sylvan" and the Spanish word mar, roughly translating into "sea of trees." In Sylmar, olive trees once grew thick on land tilled by farmers and ranchers, who turned the arid countryside into a hub for olive growing and related agricultural enterprises.

After World War II, the land was subdivided into generous lots, giving it the feel of the country, even though it was only about 26 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

But developers looking for places to build in today's hot real estate market have discovered Sylmar. They are razing the ranch-style houses and replacing them with tracts of single-family homes, condominiums and town houses.

More than 1,200 new homes -- over half of them in a single hillside project -- are in the planning or construction stages.

"It's the last place in L.A. where a builder can still find a single-family home on half an acre," said Bart Reed, a Sylmar resident and president of a transit riders advocacy group. "They can tear them down and build 52 homes."

What's going on in Sylmar is a familiar story in Southern California. Residents say their semi-rural neighborhood is one of the last in Los Angeles to undergo the transformation in part because of its far-flung location and because longtime homeowners have been reluctant to sell. For some, however, that reluctance has given way as property values skyrocket.

"Developers are willing to give them so much, you can't fault them for selling," said Patty Hug, who has lived in Sylmar for more than 20 years. "The problem is, it impacts everybody else."

Longtime residents are concerned the new dwellings are threatening their equestrian lifestyle and eating up valuable open space. Much of the community retains a largely rural feel with corrals on large lots and horse trails winding into the nearby San Gabriel Mountains.

"It's sort of the last little bastion of L.A. horse history that's left," said community activist Becky Bascom. "I have horses clomping around my property all day long, and there's always people out riding. I feel like I'm out in the country."

But getting to mountain trails requires nerves of steel for both horse and rider, who are forced to navigate streets without riding paths. Hug stopped riding her horses to the trailhead to avoid the traffic; now she loads them in a trailer and drives them the two or three miles.

"My least favorite new word is 'infill,' " Hug said, referring to the term developers use to describe new projects built in existing neighborhoods. "We're an older community with lots of horse-keeping, but it's slowly been taken away in the last five years and it's escalating at a really fast pace. People will buy one or two equestrian properties and put in 10 or 20 condos. This is happening all over Sylmar."

Indeed, a study conducted last year by four USC graduate students in public policy found increasing tension between horse owners and non-equestrians in Sylmar.

"Sylmar in the 1970s and 1980s was a rural, predominately white, non-Hispanic community, whose residents were focused on creating a place centered around equestrian activities," the report states. "Today, the dramatic influx of residents has serious consequences for a community that already has too little housing stock, too few employment opportunities, overburdened public facilities and decaying public infrastructure systems."

The report also noted that the community has become far more diverse, with a large influx of Latino residents.

The largest housing project planned for Sylmar is the 780-unit Legends of Cascades, which will be situated on a golf course near the junction of the 5, 405 and 210 freeways and California 14.

The development gets its name from the nearby Sylmar Cascades, where water coursed down through the Los Angeles Aqueduct for the first time in 1913 into the city of Los Angeles. William Mulholland is said to have proclaimed: "There it is; take it."

Another 450 condominiums are being planned or are under construction on or near Foothill Boulevard.

Gwen Allen, 73, who has lived in Sylmar most of her life, is experiencing firsthand the tension between maintaining the status quo and meeting the needs of a growing region. Her home is one of several sites being considered by the Los Angeles Unified School District for a new elementary school to serve the increased number of residents.

Allen is worried not only about losing her home of 15 years, but her beloved horses, Lucky Ketch, Koko and Yellow Diamond.

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