A few weeks ago, David Bennett turned off Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades and pulled into a nearly vacant parking lot at Temescal Gateway Park to use his cellphone.
When he was finished, he passed a stop sign at Temescal Canyon Road and continued back to Sunset.
Then he heard from the state authority that runs the park and other open spaces along the Santa Monica Mountains.
“They sent me a letter telling me I didn’t really stop,” said the Malibu contractor. “They said it was a ‘courtesy’ letter because they weren’t collecting the fine yet.”
That will change next week when the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority plans to start issuing $100 tickets to motorists who don’t come to a complete stop at five stop signs equipped with cameras.
Drivers are getting used to the red-light cameras sprouting up at busy intersections around Southern California. But are they ready for what officials describe as the nation’s first stop-sign cameras?
Some residents of Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades, Topanga Canyon and other well-heeled communities near the new cameras are already battling to have them removed. They insist that the parks authority is violating state law by installing them -- a charge officials deny.
Cameras have been erected at the Top of Topanga overlook, a popular ridge-top spot for gazing across the San Fernando Valley between rustic Topanga Canyon and residential Woodland Hills, and in Franklin Canyon as well as Temescal Gateway Park. Franklin Canyon is a deep ravine west of Coldwater Canyon Boulevard in the mountains between Beverly Hills and Sherman Oaks that is known for its picturesque tree-lined reservoir and nature center.
The computerized cameras are owned and operated by Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., run by an Australian-based holding group. Under its contract, the mountains authority will pay the company $20 for each image of a car running a stop sign. The fee for images from a mobile camera that can be used at other stop signs will be $40. The company’s fee will be tied to the consumer price index and increase annually.
One of the mountains authority’s 16 sworn park rangers will review the video and authorize the mailing of citations to the vehicles’ registered owners. The ticket will not show up in the driving record of the driver or the owner.
Those receiving tickets will be able to view the video on a home computer by entering the citation number and license plate number at a website. To contest the citation, they can request an administrative hearing before an officer appointed by the authority. Failure to pay the fine will result in escalating penalties that start at $25.
“What they’re doing is not legal,” said Jack Allen, a retired Beverly Hills city attorney who spent 10 hours at Temescal Gateway Park counting cars exiting the parking lot and measuring speeds on the nearby street with a radar gun. “The first thing I learned as city attorney was that the state vehicle code preempts any local ordinance.”
The vehicle code allows camera enforcement at rail crossings and intersections with automated traffic signals. It requires “a clear photograph of a vehicle’s license plate and the driver of the vehicle.”
Allen said federal guidelines authorize traffic cameras at “high crash or other high-risk locations where on-site traffic law enforcement personnel cannot be utilized” and require a traffic-engineering analysis of the site before the surveillance equipment is installed.
His radar gun showed that cars on Temescal Canyon Road outside the parking lot traveled an average of only 14 mph, Allen said. “Ironically, I observed five park ranger vehicles use the exit and none of them came to a complete stop,” he said.
“Some lawyer is going to file a class action on behalf of all people cited and the [park agency] will have to refund everyone’s $100,” Allen predicted. “They won’t have the $20 they paid Redflex, and I’m afraid they’ll have to sell off some of their valuable park property to handle the judgment.”
At least one outside legal expert believes the critics have a point. “They are trying to bypass the state law, the spirit of the state law,” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levinson. Though the authority argues that it can use the cameras because its roads are private, Levinson said she doubts lawmakers intended that loophole when they passed the law.
“This is a revenue-generator issue,” she said.
Mountains authority executive Joe Edmiston scoffed at that.
“I’m more worried about the lawsuit from somebody whose child is killed” by a car at one of the sites, said Edmiston, who is also executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which partners with the Conejo and Rancho Simi recreation and parks districts in the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. “We’d be sued for millions for not controlling the interface between visitors and cars.”
Edmiston predicted the stop-sign cameras would pass any legal challenge. Mountains authority officials view their roads as private property, not public roadways, and believe they have the legal authority to enforce traffic laws there.
The mountains authority was established in 1985 as a state-sanctioned joint powers authority. According to the agency’s operating ordinance, its officials have the power to “to enforce any law, ordinance, rule, regulation or resolution duly adopted and noticed by any jurisdiction where the authority has management authority or where otherwise authorized by law or by agreement.”
Said Edmiston: “Our lawyers have said there’s no conflict. Our lawyers have said it’s legal. This is not about revenue. It’s 100% about safety.”
Mountains authority spokeswoman Dash Stolarz said Franklin Canyon is heavily used by motorists who “bail through during the rush hour” when they use it as a Coldwater Canyon bypass. “It’s a terrible problem,” she said.
Sherman Oaks residents Alison and Craig Eastman agree. They regularly hike in Franklin Canyon.
“People zip through here all the time. I don’t think these cameras are motivated by avarice,” Alison Eastman said.
“You come here at 4:30 or 5 in the afternoon and it’s a steady line of cars avoiding Coldwater Canyon,” added her husband, a film composer.
Other hikers weren’t so sure, however.
“It’s kind of got that Big Brother feel,” said Ishiah Benben, an actress from San Anselmo, Calif., who recently moved to Hollywood. “I’m not from L.A., so I’m not used to these. My friends and I laugh about the eye in the sky in Los Angeles.”
At Temescal Park, visitor Erin Kapczynski, a Santa Monica marketing consultant, gazed at the stop-sign camera and then at empty Temescal Canyon Road on the other side of the sign.
“I don’t see it as a safety issue,” Kapczynski said. “It’s a revenue-maker.”
In addition to the five existing cameras, others are planned -- including a mobile camera that can be moved from place to place and permanent cameras at the Hollywood Bowl overlook and the Marvin Braude Mulholland Gateway Park in Tarzana.
So armed with their new cameras, park rangers are ready to shoot first and ask questions later.
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.