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Victory for garden doesn't mean City Hall common sense grows on trees

Bureaucrats move fast enough against an illegally grown squash on the curb, but don't count on them to quickly fix concrete problems.

August 03, 2013|Steve Lopez
  • A broken sidewalk on Saturn Street is fun for a young scooter rider but a pain for others.
A broken sidewalk on Saturn Street is fun for a young scooter rider but a pain… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

In a rare but perhaps fleeting triumph of clear-headed thinking at Los Angeles City Hall, high-level officials have rescinded a citation issued to a South L.A. family for the crime of planting squash in their frontyard.

On the evening of my Wednesday column about Angel and Carl Teger's vegetable garden, two members of City Councilman Bernard Parks' staff visited the scene of the crime and reported back to their boss. Parks then fired off a letter to Ron Lorenzen, assistant chief of the city's Bureau of Urban Forestry.

"We are requesting a hold on the citation," wrote Parks, noting that a motion to review the city's gardening policy — introduced by Council President Herb Wesson — has languished.

And indeed it has, dating back to my column two years ago on another South Los Angeles man, Ron Finley. When Finley got cited for his curb-strip garden, Wesson promised new "edible landscape" guidelines, noting that vegetable gardens could help combat high rates of obesity and diabetes in areas with limited healthful retail options.

But City Hall has moved with all the speed of an ox-driven plow, and no new ordinance has materialized. Unless you're a well-connected developer applying for millions in tax credits, in which case city officials respond as if they're in a fire drill, you're at the mercy of a bureaucracy that's in no hurry to help.

In response to last week's column, a meeting was arranged at the home of the Tegers, but the Urban Forestry supervisor who notified the Tegers of their violation was a no-show. Angel Teger dialed his office, and Lorenzen took the call.

"He said that as long as we agree to maintain the garden meticulously, there wouldn't be a problem and the garden can stay," Teger later informed supporters in an email. "YAY!"

Another homeowner recently cited for a vegetable garden, Abbie Zands of Los Feliz, was also contacted last week by Parks' office. He's awaiting word on whether he, too, is off the hook.

Of course, the city has some legitimate concerns about overgrown gardens on parkway strips — the space between curb and sidewalk. But it remains unclear why it would take more than a couple of weeks to work out a sensible compromise.

The Wednesday column included a comment from a Wesson aide who told me one concern is that the city is liable if someone trips over an eggplant. Speaking of liability, I couldn't help but remind him that the city has 5,000 miles of ruptured sidewalk due to lack of maintenance and tree trimming, and it pays out several million dollars annually in trip-and-fall settlements.

A reader who saw that column sent me a photo of a sidewalk disaster near Pico Boulevard and Beverly Drive. As regular readers know, I've scouted the city in pursuit of the worst pavement, but this looked like something out of the X Games.

I drove out and met homeowner Susan Slanina, whose sidewalk has been hideously ruptured by the roots of an oak tree, rising sharply and then plunging back to earth. Pedestrians have worn a dirt path across her front lawn to avoid catastrophe. It's been bad and getting worse for more than a decade, despite multiple calls to City Hall by Slanina's husband, John Ong.

I'm not sure what possessed me, but I had an uncontrollable urge to see if I could crawl under the uplifted sidewalk.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am 6 feet 2, 190 pounds. I got down on the ground, folded myself into said opening and disappeared into the cave. My only fear was that I might encounter a family of raccoons living under there, or a DWP crew on extended sick leave.

After I climbed back out of the abyss, Daniel Fink, who owns the house next door, crawled in. A smaller man, he could have ordered lunch in there and invited a friend to join him for a picnic.

In March of 2012, Slanina's husband sent an email to the office of Councilman Paul Koretz, asking for the city to do something before someone broke his neck.

"The city stopped complete repair of sidewalks roughly three years ago," came the reply, which nevertheless promised to "try to get attention to this area." It ended with a cheery, "THANK you!"

The city, in fact, holds the homeowner responsible for the cost of repairs other than the tacky asphalt patch jobs that mar the city landscape.

I sent an interview request to newly elected Mayor Eric Garcetti, who promised "back to basics" leadership on issues like this. Be sure to stay tuned to this space to learn about his plan of action.

Meanwhile, I urge you to visit the city's Urban Forestry website, http://bss.lacity.org/UrbanForestry/index.htm. Go to Frequently Asked Questions, and click on the question: How often does the city prune trees?

A bureaucrat, seated glumly behind a desk, looks into the camera and says: "The city currently prunes street trees on a 45-year tree-pruning cycle."

So if your trees were pruned in 2005, you're looking at 2050. Which, coincidentally, is my best guess as to when the city will complete the new edible landscape ordinance.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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