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Tiny rustic farms battle for survival in Los Angeles area

In one of the city's few residential-agricultural zones, developers want to raze five homes to build a 37,500-square-foot elder-care facility. Neighbors are divided.

January 23, 2012|By Ann M. Simmons, Los Angeles Times
  • Chickens are part of the neighborhood in a portion of Tarzana zoned for residential-agricultural use. A developer wants to build an elder-care facility in the area.
Chickens are part of the neighborhood in a portion of Tarzana zoned for residential-agricultural… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

A chicken, a raven and a peacock greeted Lisa and Ron Cerda when they moved into their southeastern Tarzana neighborhood almost two decades ago. It was just the sort of bucolic reception the couple hoped for when they fled crowded West Los Angeles for one of the city's rare residential-agricultural zones, a district that permits farming and the keeping of livestock.

Today, the Cerdas say their rustic neighborhood is threatened with extinction. Schools, synagogues and commercial businesses have crept into the district, despite dogged opposition from dozens of residents. The latest battle involves a proposal to demolish five single-family dwellings and construct a 37,500-square-foot elder-care facility.

"I feel like we're under attack," said Lisa Cerda, who heads Tarzana Residents against Poor Property Development. The group has appealed more than two dozen proposals for development projects in recent years, arguing that they were unsuitable for their neighborhood. "Once a precedent has been set and you allow an elder-care in an RA zone, you cannot prevent it from happening again."

The battle to preserve the rural flavor of residential-agricultural neighborhoods is being fought in several areas of Los Angeles County. In recent years, Tarzana's Melody Acres has tried to stop developers from subdividing large lots. Last year, the rural Richland Farms enclave of Compton has campaigned against new parking restrictions and stricter rules against keeping livestock. And in the Walnut Acres neighborhood of Woodland Hills, residents are trying to halt construction of a two-story, 76-bed nursing home.

The city's Planning Commission has given preliminary approval to the Tarzana project, but opponents have appealed and are awaiting a response. They cite concerns about increased traffic, trash and noise, and they claim that city officials are doing little to preserve the agricultural districts.

The special zoning designations date mostly to the 1920s, when Los Angeles and the rest of the nation were experiencing a boom in one-acre home-based farms.

Alan Bell, deputy director of planning for the city of Los Angeles, said the city has some 34,000 agriculturally zoned lots. Of those, 32 are being used for agriculture, while most of the others are used as single family residences, Bell said.

He rejected accusations that the city was trying to eradicate residential agricultural areas. "It's simply a consequence of people's preferences in use of land," Bell said.

Also, development plans in residential-agricultural zones were subject to vigorous screening and approval procedures, he said.

"You have to balance the need for the facility in a city with neighborhood impact," Bell said. "It's not just something that can happen without community input."

The Tarzana elder-care project is proposed by local businessman Evan Levi and the Levi Family Partnership, which operates other senior board-and-care homes in the Valley. The facility would house up to 156 seniors at the corner of Calvert Street and Yolanda Avenue.

Los Angeles Councilman Dennis Zine, whose 3rd District includes Tarzana and Woodland Hills, said he was strongly opposed to the destruction of the rural character of residential agricultural areas and has spoken publicly against the project.

"It's too large, there's not enough parking. It just does not fit this type of neighborhood," Zine said. "I agree with the need to have senior facilities, but they have to be in the right location."

The Tarzana neighborhood is one of the Valley's first farming communities. Flowering trees shade wide streets, and many of the original 1920s homes occupy lots of at least 17,500 square feet. Feathery-legged bantam chickens can be seen pecking through the grass along the roadside. In one three-acre compound surrounded by a slate-rock wall, footpaths meander through lush gardens. Owner Donna Marie Baker said she and her late husband battled a planned condo building in the 1990s and that she plans to fight the elder-care proposal as well.

The proposal does have its supporters, however, including the Tarzana Neighborhood Council. Kathy Delle Donne, chairwoman of the council's land use committee, said the proposed location for the project was "ideal" for an area that had long since ceased to be rural and needed "enhancement."

Levi, who is on the neighborhood council's board, said he chose the venue for the elder-care facility because of its proximity to the Discovery School, a private preschool he owns. The location would allow the school to continue its long-standing intergenerational program, which brings students and seniors together to participate in various activities more efficiently, Levi said. Right now, students are intermittently bussed to an elder-care facility that Levi owns in Sherman Oaks.

Levi said his project would have ample parking and not be an eyesore.

"It will be set back from the street with much shrubbery," he said. "It will look like a house and not an institutional building. We think this will be a prize for the neighborhood."

That was also the view of roughly a dozen area residents who submitted letters during a recent hearing on the matter. One writer, Tyler Inglett, wrote that he owned seven properties in the area, including four on Calvert Street, and that the project would provide jobs and "enhance the looks and feel of the area."

But opponents of the project remain steadfast.

"We're not just fighting for this patch," Cerda said. "We're fighting for Greater L.A."

ann.simmons@latimes.com

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