Here it comes again.
Dozens of Topanga residents are expected to pack the Regional Planning Commission’s downtown hearing room today for yet another round in Los Angeles County’s longest and most acrimonious land-use dispute.
For the fourth time this year, plans to build Canyon Oaks Estates--97 homes and a private golf course in Topanga’s scenic Summit Valley--will be before the five-member commission.
But after more than 14 years of debate, dissent and derision, the project is expected finally to begin moving forward in the county bureaucracy this month and may be decided on by the end of the year.
“After 15 years, we’re possibly looking at a light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still not sure if it’s an oncoming freight train,” said project opponent Susan Petrulas Nissman, a leader of a community group, the Topanga Assn. for a Scenic Community.
Nissman and as many as 60 other opponents will present their objections to the project today. The developer and supporters testified at hearings earlier this year.
“I think we’ll do our share of sitting and listening,” said Canyon Oaks project manager Charles McLaughlin.
The commissioners are unlikely to make a final decision on the project today. Even if they do, their vote--regardless of what it is--will be appealed to the Board of Supervisors by the losing side, the principals have said. Ultimately, the project’s fate will probably be decided in the courts, participants agree.
It would not be the first time the project has landed before a judge.
In a convoluted history dating back to its origin in 1978, the project has died and been resurrected, drastically changed in scope and has perhaps undergone more scrutiny than any other development proposal in recent Los Angeles County history.
All along, it has been the subject of bitter debate among Topanga residents divided over the project’s merits. Many neighbors immediately next to the project’s 257-acre site support the development.
At hearings earlier this year, the developer and supporters told commissioners that the project will create construction jobs and provide recreation opportunities to nearby residents.
In August, the developer pledged $500,000 toward the construction and maintenance of a network of hiking and equestrian trails if the project is ultimately approved. Supporters point to that program as evidence that the developer is sensitive to the desires of the community.
But many of their neighbors farther downstream on Topanga Creek oppose development of the site, which they say will harm water quality and damage a sensitive wildlife area.
“We’re ready for the battle,” opponent Roger Pugliese said.
Addressing critics who complain that the project’s golf course is incompatible with the area’s natural surroundings, McLaughlin said he will tell commissioners about studies in Tennessee and California recommending that golf courses be placed in state parks.
Even critics of the project concede that McLaughlin and his team are more adept at dealing with the community than the site’s previous owner, Christopher Wojciechowski. Wojciechowski alienated many of his neighbors as he pursued construction of a much larger project--including more houses, a hotel, a shopping center and an equestrian facility. He filed for bankruptcy in 1991, and the project was taken over and revamped by his partner Sharon Disney Lund, daughter of Walt Disney.
Lund died earlier this year and the project is backed now by her estate.
Although commissioners have reserved today and Sept. 22 to consider and vote on the project, its political history has been anything but predictable.
In April, 1991, the Board of Supervisors rejected the project, but then resurrected it for reconsideration three months later. That decision was pending when the bankruptcy occurred.