Happy Neighbors, Happy Hikers

Those special places where there are no streets are supposed to be refuges from the stress of urban living. But in some neighborhoods in the Santa Monica Mountains, complaints about visitors to adjacent wilderness illustrate how fraught the transition from concrete to chaparral can be.

Most recently, Los Angeles city officials responded to complaints from residents near Sullivan Canyon in Brentwood by imposing severe parking restrictions near a few popular trail heads. That calmed the neighbors but infuriated hikers, joggers and mountain bikers who use the trails. The problem is aggravated by the fact that although much of the land is publicly owned and abuts Topanga State Park, little of it is real public park.

That can change. Sullivan Canyon--along with nearby Rustic and Mission canyons--is owned by the Los Angeles County Sanitation District, which bought the property in the 1950s with plans to develop garbage dumps. Two years ago, the canyons were formally dropped from consideration, turning them into surplus land. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy holds the first right of refusal on a sale of the property, meaning the park agency could buy the land for well below market value.

Turning surplus public land into park serves two purposes. First, it forever protects mountain land from development and preserves an important part of Southern California's natural landscape. Second, it can help alleviate some of the conflicts between residents and visitors.

Park agencies such as the conservancy have dealt successfully with these kinds of disputes in places including Fryman Canyon in Studio City. As a park, Sullivan Canyon could be equipped with a small parking area and portable toilets and, most important, parking problems and noise could be minimized by patrolling rangers.

Turning Sullivan and other nearby canyons into formal parks ensures that the recreational benefits they offer continue, but with less downside for neighbors. The end of the asphalt should mark the beginning of peace, not of dispute.

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