Wild grass grows on the hillsides of Lopez Canyon. Deer stop to munch before galloping away. To the north spread the mountains of the Angeles National Forest.
Lopez Canyon doesn't look like a dump, but it was one for 21 years until it took its last load of garbage in 1996.
Those who live in the surrounding northeastern San Fernando Valley have for decades felt like their home has been the dumping ground of choice for dismantled automobiles, recyclables and all sorts of other garbage.
"Enough is enough up here," said Marlene Rader, president of the Kagel Canyon Civic Assn., which represents an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County that borders the city landfill.
Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon, who represents this part of the Valley, feels the same way. Growing up in Sun Valley, he said, "I could ride my bike in any direction and find a landfill." In the late 1990s, he worked to close down the Lopez Canyon Landfill. "Enough was enough," he said, echoing Rader.
But the councilman and the community activist part ways over the future of Lopez Canyon.
The landfill, still bloated with 16.5 million tons of garbage, is the centerpiece of a battle that has pitted Rader, more than a dozen community groups, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy against Alarcon, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and more than a dozen other community groups.
Alarcon wants to open a truck-driving academy, to be run by the Teamsters and the nonprofit community services group El Proyecto del Barrio on a 1.5-acre asphalted plain sitting high up on the 400-acre property.
The project, he says, would use no more than eight trucks and would provide free training to about two dozen students each month, hopefully launching them into well-paying jobs in trucking. It would exist for five years with possible extensions for up to another decade.
The city decreed years ago that once the landfill closed, the land would be designated for open space. Eventually, it's supposed to be converted into parkland and recreation centers. Opponents — the most prominent of whom is Supervisor Mike Antonovich — see the project not just as a betrayal of that promise but also as a violation of land-use terms.
Weary residents say they spent decades enduring the rumble of truck engines, the scrape of loaders, the beeping of their back-up warning systems — and the purring of city officials saying "just a few more years" before they finally closed the landfill for good.
But even now, the noise continues. Trucks still rumble by as they haul dirt to finish covering the landfill or green waste to feed a mulching facility that spews an annoying stink. Rows of giant pipes capture methane gas from the still-settling landfill. (The city makes $400,000 a year selling the output, says Alarcon.) It will be years — possibly a few decades — before it's safe to open a public park on the land.
The trucking school, Alarcon emphasizes, would have come and gone by then. And it would only operate for about half the day.
"It's a huge site and it's a very tiny parcel compared to the site," he said this week. "It's like taking 10 seats out of Dodger Stadium." Besides, he says, 30 to 130 trucks each day already make trips through the landfill.
But some residents don't see it that way. "It's always, 'We're just going to do one more thing, we're just going to put eight more trucks up there,' " said Rader, adding that from 7 a.m. on, "the noise is constant. It sounds like a construction zone."
Rader lives about half a mile away from the former landfill in Kagel Canyon, a pastoral pocket community. Her home sits off an unpaved road and surrounded by oaks and mustard. Her neighbors have goats.
As she sat outside one recent morning, her horses whinnied and the breeze ruffled the wind chimes on her porch.
"This is an industrial use," she said of the truck school. "It's not compatible with open-space zoning."
The city Bureau of Sanitation requested a zoning variance for the trucking school. After an extensive public hearing, it was granted in January — with conditions such as barring student truck drivers from smaller residential streets.
Community groups have appealed. The City Council is expected to take up the matter next month.
"This sets a dangerous precedent for thousands of open spaces," said Joe Barrett of the Sunland-Tujunga Alliance, a community group that got involved out of concern about the open-space issue.
Opponents of the academy have suggested, among other things, finding another site that's zoned for industrial uses.
But Alarcon wants the school in his district, having arranged for 25% of the training slots to go to his constituents.
"Frankly I think they're being selfish when our community needs jobs," he said of his opponents. "Maybe Kagel Canyon is fully employed, but the people in Pacoima need jobs."