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City might shut down persimmon grower

La Cañada Flintridge appears likely to plow under a small agricultural operation when it adopts a new General Plan. The owner is hoping a zoning overlay might let him continue.

January 07, 2013|By Daniel Siegal, Los Angeles Times
  • William Johnson, of La Canada, in a plot of about 465 5-year-old persimmon trees he planted on Edison-owned 'Open Space' on January 2, 2013.
William Johnson, of La Canada, in a plot of about 465 5-year-old persimmon… (Tim Berger, Los Angeles…)

William Johnson has been fighting for several years to keep his small farm alive, but the General Plan that the city of La Cañada Flintridge is getting ready to adopt won't do him any favors.

It appears likely that Johnson will be forced to close his operation and perhaps tear out a 475-tree persimmon grove.

Johnson has owned his 67-acre parcel along Angeles Crest Highway in the hills above La Cañada Flintridge since about 1997. He also makes use of 11 acres owned by Southern California Edison.

Fred Buss, the city's Senior Planner, said the current draft of the city's General Plan does not allow for agricultural activity on the land where the persimmons are planted.

The General Plan will come before the City Council for review on Jan. 22, Buss said. The document, a wide-ranging planning blueprint for the city, may be adopted this month or in February, he said.

Johnson said he has long supported urban farming and planted his persimmons several years ago after the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggested that the fruit tree would flourish in the area. Edison has no objections to his use of its property.

"I think it's a really good thing for society to have, to be able to grow your own fruit," he said. "And persimmons are a good December gift fruit when they're dried, so there will be a strong market for it, I believe."

Johnson may never see a crop, however. Persimmons usually do not bear fruit for the first seven years, and by this time next year the city may have outlawed Johnson's farm.

Once the General Plan is approved, the city will move to update its zoning ordinances to match it. At that time Johnson would be required to stop using Edison land, which includes the persimmon orchard, said Buss.

City Manager Mark Alexander said the Planning Commission could institute an overlay zone to accommodate Johnson's operation after the fact but that he would have to submit an application first.

Charles Gelhaar, former president of the homeowner's association at the Angeles Crest Estates development, which abuts Johnson's property, said neighbors have more serious concerns than persimmons.

"Neighbors aren't worried about the persimmons," he said. "It's the fact that he had cows and horses and alpacas up on his property. You're supposed to put [animal] waste in metal containers daily and remove it weekly, and he just wasn't doing it."

Gelhaar, who served on the city's Planning Commission from 2000 to 2010, said Johnson has a history of disregarding city ordinances.

"Everybody else in this town seems able to abide by our animal-keeping ordinances and our other ordinances," Gelhaar said.

Johnson defended his operation and said that if the city doesn't include an agricultural overlay in the General Plan, he might try to gather signatures to request an amendment.

"I used to have cows and hope to have cows again," he said. "I want to continue to have this be a good working farm."

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