Battle over access to Hollywood sign heads to court

Like a beacon, the iconic string of towering white letters has drawn throngs of tourists and locals into the Hollywood Hills, many craving the perfect photo to show off to friends, family or their Instagram followers.

But the pull of the Hollywood sign has also generated anger along the winding roads in those hills as homeowners have complained of a crush of motorists clogging roads, hikers in the middle of narrow streets and smokers flicking cigarettes into flammable brush.

Such frustrations were part of an eruption of voter discontent that helped City Hall outsider David Ryu win a Los Angeles City Council seat earlier this year.

Now some homeowners are taking their battle to court, demanding that the city close a popular path into Griffith Park used to view the famed sign until the effects on the neighborhood have been fully evaluated. They argue that a residential street leading to the trail head, Beachwood Drive, was never designed to be a major tourist route and the onslaught of car and pedestrian traffic could block fire engines.

"It's dangerous," said Sarajane Schwartz, a founding member of Homeowners on Beachwood Drive United, who believes the city has failed to address the risks posed by the crowds. Drawing an analogy, she said: "If a car doesn't have brakes, you don't drive it until you figure out what to do. You stop it."

Schwartz and other Beachwood Canyon residents sued the city last week, alleging that officials encouraged a flood of visitors without analyzing the actions as required under the California Environmental Quality Act and state planning laws.

The group places much of the blame on Tom LaBonge, the gregarious former councilman who recently left office after representing the district for more than a dozen years. In its suit, the group alleged LaBonge made decisions "alone and without legal authority" to attract visitors to the Hollywood sign via the trail at the end of Beachwood Drive.

The lawsuit also cites the decision to clear an area along Mulholland Drive as an example of "actions to create and improve a tourist viewing area."

LaBonge has argued that the problem stems from the popularity of GPS systems and navigation apps that have guided more users to hillside locations with spectacular views.

But until the city analyzes fire risks, traffic hazards and other problems affecting the neighborhood, the homeowners want the city to halt access to Griffith Park via Beachwood Drive. Schwartz said the city also should shut down the Mulholland Drive vista point, calling it one of the area's "illegal magnets."

Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, declined to comment on the lawsuit filed against the city.

LaBonge, the former councilman, said he took action to address neighborhood complaints, including strictly limiting parking in the neighborhood. Brush was cleared from the vista point to reduce the risk of fire, he said. And to better control vehicle traffic and prevent nighttime hikers from hopping over, the city upgraded a security gate leading to the Beachwood Drive trail.

But he balked at the idea of blocking pedestrian access to the Beachwood Drive trail. "When you live next to a public park you have to expect one thing — the public," LaBonge said.

Local hikers were also dismayed by the homeowners' demands. "This is a last-ditch effort to try to prevent people from getting up there," said Alissa Walker, who has blogged about the issue. "It's really disappointing."

Gerry Hans, president of the nonprofit group Friends of Griffith Park, said blocking the Beachwood Drive trail entrance would put more visitor pressure on other parts of the park.

Schwartz argued that hikers and tourists could still access the same trails — just not from Beachwood Drive. Hollywoodland Homeowners Assn. President Jim Van Dusen, who is not among the homeowners suing the city, said he's reluctant to see the city block park access through Beachwood Drive, but "out of sheer desperation, all the options have to be on the table."

"We're not talking about a NIMBY issue," Van Dusen said. "We're talking about a real serious safety issue. And it's not just for the residents — it's also for the tourists."

During the spring City Council campaign, many homeowners in the area backed Ryu over his rival Carolyn Ramsay, a former LaBonge aide. Now the problem that dogged LaBonge is being inherited by Ryu, who campaigned on a pledge to shake up the status quo.

Tony Fisch, a Lake Hollywood Estates resident who has been critical of the city's handling of sign visitors, said that under LaBonge the neighborhood was "turned into Disneyland" and lacked a broader plan to manage tourism and safety. In recent months, he said, a fire started near the sign vista and a car careened off a winding road.

"Now it'll be up to David to follow up and deliver on our requests for help," he said.

Ryu, who took office last week, declined to say whether the Beachwood Drive trail head should be closed. He said he is gathering information on the issue. "I'm very concerned about the safety of the residents of Beachwood Canyon," he said, calling it one of his "number one issues" during the campaign.

However, he added, "I don't want to do a knee-jerk reaction."

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