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Troubles At The MTA : Tunnel Project Strikes a Vein of Anger : Subway: Property owners say agency isn’t offering enough compensation for digging under Hollywood Hills. Officials insist mining will be barely perceptible.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hundreds of property owners in the hills above Hollywood and Studio City are pondering a dirty question these days: Just what is the earth 800 feet below their land worth?

$1,000? $250,000? $5.5 million? Zip?

The conundrum has provoked strenuous debate from the Santa Monica Mountains to City Hall as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority goes full-speed ahead with its plan to dig and blast twin Red Line subway tunnels from Universal City to Hollywood.

On Wednesday, nearly 100 people organized by state Sen. Tom Hayden rallied in front of MTA headquarters to protest the project. These critics, including the city parks department, complain that the MTA has handed property owners an unfair ultimatum: Accept $1,000 to $2,000 for the right to burrow beneath their land, or face condemnation. Landowners believe that the easement’s value could be 10, 100, or in the parks department’s case, 5,500 times higher.

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Even more, they say, they fear the ecological damage that tunneling could cause. The MTA has said it will drain 7 million gallons of water from the hills per day as it tunnels through, and will use 250,000 pounds of explosives to create three huge underground equipment rooms under the city’s Runyon Canyon Park. It also will blast out a wide section where the tunnel passes through an earthquake fault in Hollywood.

Citing an environmental study by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy describing the project as “an enormous gamble” to the integrity of the hills, property owners contend that construction could scare off wildlife and leave slopes barren of vegetation.

“It’s not really about the money, it’s about the mountains,” said Allen Rose, who lives over the route.

The MTA contends that the underground easement--a tube-shaped space 2.3 miles long and about 125 feet wide--is worthless to anyone but the agency. Officials insist that the hard-rock mining will occur so far underground--more than the height of a 40-story building over most of the route--that sound and vibrations will be barely perceptible on the surface.

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Yet landowners have mocked assurances from MTA construction chief Charles Stark that the blasting would feel “like a child jumping on a bed.”

“How big is that child, and why are we letting him jump 15 hours a day?” asked Blue Andre, a Hollywood Hills resident.

The dispute will be played out at an MTA board meeting Dec. 20, when directors are expected to condemn easements the agency has not yet purchased. That will force holdout property owners to battle the MTA in court.

In the exclusive Santa Monica Mountains communities above the tunnel alignment, the debate is streaked with emotion. Many homeowners fear that the tunneling will bore a gaping hole through property values in addition to upsetting the tranquillity of the hills.

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In addition, many property owners say they are angry because the MTA did not inform them about the project because their land does not sit directly over the tunnel.

“The MTA has treated us all horrendously,” said Karin Gideon, who lives above the alignment.

Residents also worry about the tunnel project’s safety. The MTA has sought state permission to store 10,000 pounds of explosives in the tunnel--a week’s supply rather than the usual three-day cache.

County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, an MTA board member who has long advocated building a monorail or train in the Hollywood Freeway median instead of a subway, said he wantsthe agency to store the dynamite elsewhere.

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“Allowing the MTA to store explosives in Hollywood is like giving an arsonist matches and gasoline,” he said.

Although the MTA has only obtained 22 of the 94 subsurface easements it requires to tunnel through the Santa Monica Mountains, it has found a few allies. Some residents believe property values could actually rise with the easy access to the subway station.

“They’re putting a little hole in a very large mountain. Hey, get a life, guys,” said Al Leavitt, a resident of Multiview Drive.

Still, for others, the dispute sifts down to a concept that lawyers call severance damages. The subterranean ribbon of dirt that the MTA wishes to purchase clearly has no market value, but what happens when it is severed from the property and used to construct a subway?

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“The MTA has constructed its tunnels so poorly so far that there is a stigma attached to a property on top of a Metro Rail easement--that’s the real damage,” said Kevin Brogan, an attorney representing homeowners facing condemnation.

Brogan estimates that severance damages could work out to as much as 25% of a property’s full value. Some properties above the alignment are owned by Hollywood stars such as Oscar-winning actor Martin Landau, and are worth more than $1 million.

MTA real estate director Velma Marshall objects to that view, declaring that agency appraisers have determined that the tunnel will not impair property values. The MTA would prefer to compensate property owners for any actual damage rather than paying in advance for possible damage.

Juries have decided numerous times in favor of defendants in MTA condemnation hearings. In constructing its first Red Line segment Downtown the agency lost 33 of 38 condemnation cases with property owners and their tenants in settlements and jury trials. In total, the MTA was forced to pay $24.4 million more than its original offers.

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Mayor Richard Riordan has joined critics of the condemnation, urging in a letter to the MTA board’s chairman last week that the panel hold off any eminent domain action until it reviews a report from three engineering experts. The report, ordered by the mayor in August, is due Friday.

Hillside property owners also have a second powerful ally: the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

Park commissioners have demanded that the MTA compensate for potential damage to historic Runyon Canyon Park by purchasing 110 acres of nearby open space from TV game show host Alex Trebek and two other private landowners--then turn it over to the city for parkland. The land has been estimated to be worth $4.5 million to $5.5 million.

The MTA’s Marshall called the demand “extreme,” saying that agency experts believe that the tunnels will not affect natural water flow in the park.

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As the two sides negotiate, the clock is ticking toward the date in February when the MTA has said it must begin tunneling.

County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, an MTA board member who has advocated building a monorail over the Hollywood Freeway instead of a subway, said he believes the tunneling could be halted. “Until the trains are running it’s not too late,” he said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Under- Mountain Subway

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A 2.3- mile excavation from Universal City to Hollywood will ultimately create tunnels for Red Line subway trains.

Sources: Metropolitan Transportation Authority


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