Modjeska Canyon's Rage Softens Into Raves

A year ago, tiny Modjeska Canyon was in near-revolt over the town's centerpiece, a century-old home that once belonged to Shakespearean actress Madame Helena Modjeska.

The county bought the 14-acre property for $1 million in 1986, and promptly launched plans to turn it into a museum. Residents were grateful to have the land protected from development, but many were outraged by the county's proposal for operating the facility once renovations were complete.

Concerned about noise, traffic and safety along narrow Modjeska Canyon Road, which snakes through olive groves and back into the heart of the 180-home community, some townspeople threatened to chain themselves to bulldozers to keep the project from breaking ground.

Others, more temperate, talked of legal action and vigorously denounced plans for the Modjeska Home and the nearby Fleming Property, which is also being developed by the county as a park.

So imagine the happy surprise county officials got this month when the Modjeska Canyon Newsletter proclaimed in a banner headline: "County Parks Does Great Job on Fleming Property."

"Hats off to the planners on this one," the newsletter editors wrote. "Their efforts have been outstanding."

For Kathie Matsuyama, the county's project manager, words of praise were long in coming from the canyon residents.

"It's come out really well," she said Thursday. "There were some doozy meetings there for a while."

Indeed, settlement has come slowly to the issue, and at least one point continues to provide some sparks: Residents of the independent community would like to see the park closed either Saturdays or Sundays, but the county insists on keeping it open all weekend.

Still, both sides have given ground, and what was once a raging controversy seems now to have settled into a low-key argument.

"It's pretty good after all that," said Greg Bates, a community resident who was involved in many of the early discussions regarding the property. "Assuming that they do the things they say they'll do, I think it's going to work out."

Canyon residents are particularly pleased with plans to limit the number of parties that can be held on the property and with a proposed museum shuttle-bus and reservation service that will hold down the number of cars using the canyon road. Under the county's operating plan, no visitors will be allowed to use the museum unless they already have reservations, and to get to the facility they will have to park their cars at the end of the road and be shuttled in by bus.

Some exceptions will be made for rangers and handicapped people, but for the most part, cars won't be parking at the center or using the road to it.

Those requirements are part of the county's draft environmental impact report, which will probably be completed this month, Matsuyama said. After that, residents will have time to respond to the report, both in writing and at a public meeting.

Once that comment period is complete, Matsuyama said, the plan will be forwarded to the county Planning Commission and the Harbors, Beaches and Parks Commission. Approval, she added, could come as soon as November.

That will still leave 18 months of planning and building improvements on the two properties, but, barring unforeseen holdups, the park should be in operation by early 1992.

"It hasn't always been easy," Matsuyama said Thursday. "But it's pleasing to know that people are real happy with how hard we've worked on this. It's going to make a really nice place."

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