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Sheep Divide Developer and Officials

Times Staff Writer

As city animal control officers see it, it’s a simple case of illegal sheep.

“It’s a routine complaint,” says Lt. Tim Goffa. “He’s maintaining sheep (too close) to the neighborhood dwellings.”

But in San Pedro, where residents are up in arms over rampant apartment construction, the battle between the city of Los Angeles and developer Art Corona is more complex than that. Some say it has as much to do with the slow-growth movement as it does with the sheep Corona keeps on part of a three-acre lot on Pacific Avenue where, in 1982, residents successfully fought his request to build more than 500 apartments.

Corona won permission for 107 units, but he built them all on one side of the parcel. Eight sheep now graze the remaining two acres.

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Says Los Angeles Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores: “I have felt, and continue to feel, that Art Corona has put these sheep on his lot in an effort to thumb his nose at the community, because he didn’t get what he wanted. I’ve almost wondered if he doesn’t stay awake nights thinking, ‘How could I get even?’ ”

Hogwash, replies Corona. “If I really wanted to get to them, I’d put hogs there. But I’m not vindictive about it.”

Corona says the city is harassing him and his sheep, which he says make great gardeners and nifty pets. “We’re in trouble as a society if all our prosecutors have to do is jump on a bunch of sheep that are locked behind a fence.”

And no, he adds, he’s not going to move the woolly critters. Instead, he’ll fight “the deputy dog"--his name for the city’s Department of Animal Regulation--before a judge and jury.

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The trial on the misdemeanor charge, which carries a six-month jail sentence and $1,000 fine, is set Monday in San Pedro Municipal Court.

In 1982, Corona paid the federal government $2.1 million for six acres adjacent to Ft. MacArthur. The land was the site of an Army hospital at Pacific Avenue and 26th Street, and the deed actually included land that had been used for years as Pacific Avenue.

Corona specializes in building small, single-bedroom apartments, and that was his plan for this property, which was zoned for agriculture. “I think we need some inexpensive housing,” he explains, “smaller units that people could afford.”

When he sought a zone change for high-density development, residents fought the project. The battle was bitter--at one point, Corona threatened to block off Pacific Avenue, one of the community’s main thoroughfares. Ultimately, he says, he gave up his interest in three acres--including the street--in exchange for zoning with a density that allowed the 107-unit Corona del Mar complex on the remaining three acres.

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“They told me I could build 107 units on the ground so I did,” he says. “But I happened to crowd them all on one corner.”

Residents have been irked at him ever since. And these days, when tearing down single-family homes to put up apartments is the hottest issue in town, Corona has become “the symbol of overbuilding,” according to Councilwoman Flores.

The developer rejects the opinions of some in San Pedro that he hopes to someday build on the rest of the property.

“I don’t hope to do anything on it,” he says. “I’m just going to raise sheep on it and enjoy it.”

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This is not the first brush Corona’s sheep have had with the law. For a time, he kept the flock on a lot where he is now building apartments at the corner of Shepard and Gaffey Streets. He moved them to Pacific Avenue last year when city officials said the sheep violated the zoning for the Gaffey Street lot.

Corona says he initially purchased the sheep “as kind of an environmental gardener.” They did such a good job, in fact, that there is no grass left on the Pacific Avenue lot; the animals now feed on alfalfa and grain left for them by Helen and Aaron Cates, the live-in managers at Corona del Mar.

Helen Cates said the sheep have become a neighborhood attraction, with nearby residents gathering 76 signatures on a petition to keep them.

“Everybody loves them,” she says. “People bring their children who have never seen sheep before.”

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Well, apparently not everybody.

Goffa, the city animal control officer, says his department received a complaint in March that the sheep violate the Municipal Code, which requires animals be kept at least 75 feet from dwellings. Corona was instructed to remove the sheep immediately, but Goffa said he has failed to heed repeated warnings.

The matter was turned over to the city attorney’s office. The two sides held a settlement conference in San Pedro before a hearing officer Thursday, which Deputy City Atty. Lynn Mayo describes “as a last-ditch effort to get compliance without incurring the cost of an expensive trial.”

But Corona will have none of that--especially after animal control officers confronted him with a 3-year-old warrant for walking his dog without a leash. After Thursday’s hearing, Corona was taken in handcuffs to the Harbor Division police station, where he bailed himself out for $170, agreeing to appear in court Aug. 10.

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Goffa and Mayo say that the leash law violation, which stems from Corona’s failure to pay his initial citation, was standard procedure.

Corona, meanwhile, says the arrest has made him even more determined to keep his sheep. “The deputy dog is very hostile,” he declares. “He’s not giving in and neither am I.”


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