The fight over a rugged 26-acre site in Pacific Palisades, one of the last undeveloped coastal canyons in Los Angeles, moves to a San Francisco board room next month.
It seems an unlikely place in which to determine the future of Las Pulgas Canyon, a mostly hidden landscape filled with willow trees and wild springs. But a series of recent events have guided it far from the canyon site, which borders Sunset Boulevard just north of Temescal Canyon Road and funnels out to Pacific Coast Highway.
A few weeks ago, a West Los Angeles developer began geologic testing in the canyon, long plagued by landslides and the site of a major flood in 1979. However, members of Save Las Pulgas Canyon Inc., a preservation group that formed shortly after the property went up for sale this year, asked state Coastal Commission inspectors to view the site, saying that the developer far exceeded the level of grading permitted by the city.
Coastal inspectors agreed and issued a stop-work order, noting that the construction of several roads and the destruction of natural vegetation violated the state Coastal Act. If the developer, Neil Senturia, wants to continue grading the property, the commission ordered, he must seek a permit before the full commission at next month's meeting in San Francisco.
The meetings between the group, Senturia and their attorneys served to heighten the bad feelings and distrust which have existed since Senturia emerged as the buyer of the property. Even after Senturia was served with the work stoppage order, his engineers continued to grade the property, infuriating members of the group and nearly bringing the battle over the canyon to a Los Angeles courtroom.
Senturia, the only identified partner in the venture, has declined to offer any specific development plans for the property, which was purchased at a fire sale price of about $1.4 million this summer.
Zoning regulations would allow up to 180 homes to be developed in the canyon, but preservation group members said the unstable hillsides make the site unfit for any large development.
Neither Senturia nor his attorney returned phone calls to discuss the development site. However, in a previous interview, Senturia suggested that he plans to build substantially fewer dwellings than allowed by zoning regulations and said he thought the geological hazards on the property could be overcome.
The secrecy about the property has fueled fear and speculation about the fate of Las Pulgas Canyon. A major hotel chain reportedly offered Senturia $30 million for the lucrative canyon site. And a Los Angeles real estate broker who specializes in international properties said that several foreign investors were eyeing the site to build a private estate.
"We didn't expect any major movement on the property this soon," said Ron Wolf, president of the 250-member conservation group. "We were caught by surprise (by the grading). But at least we were successful in stopping any more damage to the property."
As part of the Coastal Commission's order, the developer must draw up an emergency erosion plan to address how to handle surface drainage and how to channel runoff water away from high instability areas. The commission, which is expected to address the Las Pulgas Canyon issue Dec. 16, is also scheduled to vote on a request by Senturia to remove four underground gas tanks.
Although the natural beauty of the private enclave has attracted hikers, picnickers and even film directors over the years, its natural hazards have turned away developers. The canyon is plagued with crumbling hillsides, mounds of unstable fill and a flood plain that caused a step dam to burst during torrential rains 9 years ago.
The remains of the dam lie near the eastern edge of the property, while the remains of a hillside that once held several homes looms over the western edge of the canyon.
Members of the preservation group, who have begun a fund-raising drive for money to buy the canyon, estimate that it would take up to 2 million cubic yards of dirt to fill the canyon. They say the job would take 10 years to complete and expect a protracted battle before any development is allowed to occur.
The city is repairing another landslide-bitten canyon in Pacific Palisades, which will cost about $7 million to complete. The controversial Portrero Canyon project, involves filling a canyon with 1 million cubic yards of dirt and building a storm drain to carry excess rainwater to Will Rogers State Park.
"We're trying to stop anything that would irrevocably destroy the canyon," Wolf said. "And I think we've taken some significant steps in that direction."