Valley Interview : Chatsworth Reservoir Deserves to Be Saved, Bernson Says

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This spring, the 1,300-acre Chatsworth Reservoir surfaced as one of the city-owned properties that could be developed for commercial use.

Put in two golf courses, some officials suggested, and the cash-strapped city could score a profit.

City Councilman Hal Bernson is not crazy about that idea. He has long opposed any efforts to develop the historic wildlife reserve. Instead, he favors leasing it to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and has discussed it with executive director Joe Edmiston.

Built in 1919, the reservoir has been empty since 1969, when it was drained for enlarging. It has not been used since, because after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, it was determined that the reservoir's dam was unsafe and that it was underlain by a seismic fault.

Today the area is a home for deer, coyotes, many species of birds and other wildlife. Migrating geese stop there on their way to and from Canada. It also contains Chumash archeological sites.

Bernson recently discussed the current status of the reservoir, and why he has fought to keep it away from developers.

Question: Why not turn it into a golf course?

Answer: There are proper locations for golf courses, and there are other locations that are not appropriate. Chatsworth Reservoir is just not appropriate for a golf course. We have a number of golf courses already. This area is the last piece of property that we have that is a wildlife refuge, that is open, and it needs to be preserved. I am concerned about the environment. I wouldn't say I'm an extreme environmentalist. I've tried to be a moderate on it. I just believe that there are proper places for development, and proper places to be preserved.

People now can go to Knollwood, which is a public golf course. They have three golf courses over at Balboa in the Sepulveda Basin. There's Calabasas, and Sunset Farms is going to put a golf course at the end of Balboa, on the other side of Foothill Boulevard. There's not a shortage of golf facilities.

Q: Shouldn't the city have a chance to make money out of its own property?

A: Not necessarily. Why don't we sell City Hall or some other facility? Sell our police force? There's an appropriate way to make money, and, frankly, I think the city could do a lot better than it's doing in how it manages the revenue that it has. If we were to operate the city like a business operates, then we wouldn't have as much of a financial crunch as we currently have.

Why stop with Chatsworth Reservoir? What's wrong with Sepulveda Basin? Why don't we sell that to someone so they can develop it? What about Griffith Park or Elysian Park? Let's face it. We have certain things in our city that we want to preserve. Why not sell Yellowstone National Park? The federal government has a deficit, too.

One of the things I had hoped to do, but unfortunately we've been unsuccessful, is to get the reservoir refilled, and I think that would have solved everyone's problem, because everybody would have loved it. It would have discouraged any potential for future development in the area just because it happens to be vacant.

Years ago, Mayor Bradley even proposed putting low-cost housing in there. We've had proposals for country clubs, condominiums with everything in there, and the answer has been that the community doesn't want it.

Q: Is there any way to preserve the wildlife and still have a way for the city to make some money?

A: The city can make some money out of the property by giving it over to the conservancy, so they can maintain it. That's the best way.

I've supported getting revenue out of the airport and the harbor. I've supported virtually every type of measure where it will save the city money. But we don't start destroying our heritage, our local treasures, to do it. Where is the tremendous need for that, other than the mayor wants to generate a few bucks? I support him on virtually all the other things, but not on this one.

Q: Can you preserve wildlife and still have development there?

A: What happens is that after you put the golf course in, then people say, "Let's put another golf course in." Once you start, it will be the same thing, step after step, until you've eliminated it. So let's keep it the way it is.

The reservoir represents a little page in history, because at one time the Valley was settled by Indians, and the Indian tribe that was indigenous to that area was the Chumash Indians, and the history is there. Standing up there, you get a little idea of what the Valley looked like 150 years ago, maybe even 100 years ago.

We've had our share of growth. You don't have to eliminate the last little piece. It is a wildlife corridor. It ties right into the Santa Susana Mountains. There are herds of deer in there. There are coyotes in there, all kinds of wildlife. It's a bird sanctuary, as well.

Q: What's the current status?

A: The status is that it is protected by our Community Plan. It has a designation as a very sensitive wildlife refuge. There is a move now to get it recognized by the federal government for being the same. Currently, the property is available to the public for what we call passive recreation, which means hiking, bird-watching.

The conservancy has indicated an interest to take the property over on a long-term lease or on a grant. They're willing. I'm willing. The community is willing. I don't think we can give it away. But we can lease it to them for a long period of time at $1 per year, and they will take away the cost of maintenance from Department of Water and Power, which is a sizable amount. That would alleviate part of the city's crisis, and would alleviate any push to try to stick some type of development in there.

I'd like to see it in the hands of the conservancy because their main goal is to preserve open space. Transferring or leasing this property is another layer of protection because two mayors in a row have had other kinds of plans for it.

Q: Are you worried about its being bought by someone else for another use?

A: Frankly, I don't know who is going to buy this property from DWP. What use would they buy it for? Who is going to make that kind of investment? Right now, the property is basically a negative revenue type situation. So the best prospect the city has is, basically, to lease the property to the conservancy.

Q: What has to happen for the city to lease it to the conservancy, and do you have a timetable?

A: I would like it as quickly as possible. We're making a formal request for the conservancy to directly inform our office of their interest in assuming a long-term lease as custodian of the reservoir, and, at the same time, that the DWP review negotiating a long-term lease so they are no longer using ratepayers' money to maintain the property. The DWP board would have to approve a lease to the conservancy.

In the meantime, the public needs to know there is no immediate threat of development here because of the difficult approval process needed. This is a sensitive area, and it couldn't be done easily. Besides, they would have to get through me.

Q: Is there any opposition to this?

A: Oh, there might be some opposition. I think there are people in the mayor's office, and people like Mr. (Steven) Soboroff (president of the city's Recreation and Parks Commission) who are looking to try to squeeze out a few dollars every place they can, and I can understand that. But this is the wrong place.

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