Griffith Park groups dealt a setback in fight over access to Hollywood sign trail

Local groups that want Los Angeles to reopen a popular access point to a Hollywood sign trail were dealt a setback in court Tuesday.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge rejected their attempt to intervene in a court battle that led the city to close the Beachwood Drive gate to hikers this year.

However, Judge Elizabeth Feffer said the groups could still have their day in court — by filing a separate lawsuit on the “serious issues” they had raised.

“It’s a minor setback,” said attorney Mitchell Tsai, whose clients have yet to decide their next steps.

Earlier this year, the city said it had stopped allowing hikers through the Beachwood Drive gate to resolve a legal dispute with Sunset Ranch Hollywood Stables, which complained that the city had been funneling thousands of hikers onto an access road leading to its horseback-riding facility in Griffith Park.

The ranch also raised concerns about safety, warning that it was dangerous for pedestrians to share the winding road with trucks and horse trailers headed to the facility.

The Beachwood Drive gate had been one of the most popular access points for hikers and tourists trying to catch a glimpse of the famous sign. The decision was welcomed by some nearby homeowners who had complained about traffic congestion, fire hazards and other safety risks from crowds of tourists hiking up the Beachwood Canyon street.

But others — including some Beachwood Canyon residents — protested the city decision. The Friends of Griffith Park, the Los Feliz Oaks Homeowners Assn. and the Griffith J. Griffith Charitable Trust challenged the move in court, saying that L.A. had other ways to adhere to a court order and protect Sunset Ranch without blocking access at Beachwood Drive.

The Griffith Park groups pointed out that Feffer had not ordered the city to close the Beachwood gate to hikers. Instead, the judge told L.A. to stop preventing Sunset Ranch employees and customers from accessing the facility — and to provide public access for pedestrians as close as possible to either the Beachwood gate or an earlier access point.

The local groups argued that turning hikers away from the Beachwood Drive gate had undermined public access to Griffith Park, put other neighborhoods at risk from redirected traffic and amounted to an illegal gift of public land to a private company, calling it an “improper backroom deal.”

“The city isn't allowed to close public access to a public park under the guise of a private settlement, without any public process,” Tsai said.

However, at the Tuesday hearing, Deputy City Atty. Michael Kaplan argued that hikers and tourists still had other ways to access Griffith Park, including the Hollyridge Trail that is prized for its views of the Hollywood sign. Closing the gate to hikers, Kaplan added, was not only meant to protect Sunset Ranch but to prevent a potentially fatal accident on the access road.

Both the city and Sunset Ranch argued against allowing the Griffith Park groups to intervene.

Feffer ultimately turned down the request to jump into the case, saying it would present a “logistical nightmare” for the court as it proceeded to trial on a different set of issues in the same case.

She pointed out that some of the legal issues raised by the Griffith Park groups — including whether the city had violated the California Environmental Quality Act — would have to be handled by a different court anyway.

“This was the correct decision,” said attorney Michael Angel, who is representing Sunset Ranch, after the Tuesday hearing. The groups “did not establish what was required of them in order to intervene.”

Members of the Hollywoodland Homeowners Assn. also attended the Tuesday hearing but did not immediately comment on the decision. They did, however, hand out a written statement saying they were pleased with the decision to close the Beachwood gate.

“It is our hope that the city of Los Angeles will take this opportunity to develop appropriate areas and infrastructure, out of all residential areas, for channeling visitors to the Hollywood sign,” the group said in its statement.

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesEmily

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