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Saying neigh to a market

Residents of Burbank's Rancho Equestrian district fear that a Whole Foods store would threaten their horse-loving way of life.

January 03, 2007|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

Marva-lea Kornblatt was raised in the Tudor-style home on Burbank's Valencia Street. Having a horse or two stabled behind the house was as normal as having any other pet.

Red, her 16-year-old quarter horse with a habit of affectionately slobbering on visitors, was born in the backyard.

"The word 'unique' gets overused, but it is unique here," said Kornblatt, 61. "I can saddle up and hit the trails in five minutes.... It just galls me that someday I might be forced out of here because I can't stand it anymore."

Kornblatt and her fellow residents of Burbank's Rancho Equestrian district are locked in what they say is a struggle for the future of their way of life.

The potential culprit: a Whole Foods Market.

The proposed market has prompted a fierce community response from Rancho residents, who say the extra traffic will destroy their horse-centric lifestyle.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Burbank Mayor Todd Campbell, who is to preside over what promises to be a raucous City Council debate on the project Tuesday. "I probably receive about a hundred e-mails a day on this issue. There's a lot of emotions tied up in the Rancho."

The district, containing about 600 homes in two sections, has a special package of zoning regulations that permit ordinary homeowners to keep horses. Residences zoned R1-H (H for horses) are allowed one horse for every 3,000 square feet of lot.

Rancho Equestrian borders Griffith Park, enabling residents to ride their horses from home to the park's many equestrian trails. Even for those who don't own horses, the sight of riders along Burbank's urban streets is a key element of the area's flavor.

"Burbank is often seen as an oasis from L.A.," Campbell said, and Rancho Equestrian is a "micro-community" within that oasis, one that he said produces "very committed, very intelligent, very coordinated residents."

Kornblatt and other lifelong residents have been joined over the years by transplants drawn specifically by the equestrian lifestyle.

Angela Fogg was transferred to Los Angeles from Bakersfield five years ago and chose to live in the district for the horse-owning privileges. She eventually quit her job at Guitar Center and now works full time at Dominion Saddlery at Burbank's Equestrian Center.

"It doesn't feel like L.A. here, and we want to keep that," said Fogg, 45. "It's the most down-to-earth, unpretentious, relaxed feel we have here. It's like a small town right in the middle of Los Angeles."

That small-town feel is something Rancho residents have risen up to defend multiple times over the years.

Kornblatt has seen "countless" grass-roots campaigns against developments in and near Rancho. "And my mother did it before me," she said.

The constant vigilance, residents say, is necessary as development in Burbank and expansions of the nearby Disney and NBC studio lots have steadily increased the traffic flow.

"It's not by leaps and bounds, just a gradual creep," Fogg said. "It's already a challenge enough for people walking their horses."

The residents' latest campaign opposes a plan to build a 60,000-square-foot Whole Foods Market at Main Street and Alameda Avenue, across the street from a Pavilions supermarket.

City planning staffers approved the project, ruling that the environmental and traffic impact would be within acceptable limits.

Angry Rancho residents, however, turned out in force at a meeting of the city Planning Commission to protest the proposal. The commission overruled its own staff's recommendation and rejected the project, setting up the City Council showdown.

Developer Tom Davies blames the controversy on an "alarmist" contingent of Rancho residents who circulated fliers predicting a flood of new traffic, increased danger to horses and schoolchildren, and plummeting property values.

"If this store goes in, it ultimately is the demise of the Rancho area," said Roman Gora, a 14-year Rancho resident who wrote one of the fliers.

Davies has proposed modifications that he says would limit the store's effect on area traffic, including speed bumps, traffic islands and special lanes for horses and bicycles.

But Gora rejects the suggestions as "just a Band-Aid. It's not addressing the issue. More cars is still more cars.... It's just the wrong location for that size of a project."

Gora and others say they would welcome a significantly smaller market, but Michael Besancon, Whole Foods' southern Pacific regional president, says the size of the project is not up for negotiation. Given the value of the land, a smaller store wouldn't be economically viable, he said.

"It isn't an issue of us against anyone," Besancon said. "I hate the adversarial thing. We just want to be a grocery store and sell natural foods."

Michael Hastings, a former Burbank mayor who is working as a consultant for Davies, the developer, credited Rancho residents for their passion and their pride.

But he said there's a certain segment that immediately labels any new local development a threat to their way of life.

Hastings recalls a similarly passionate dispute in the early 1990s, while he was mayor, over the Pavilions that is now across the street from the proposed Whole Foods site.

Residents at the time predicted that the store would spell the end of Rancho Equestrian, he said.

Both sides noted that the upscale, outdoors-loving Rancho residents are the perfect customers for an upscale natural foods store.

"We all love Whole Foods," Gora said. "It's just a large market in the neighborhood; that's the issue."

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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