Canyon residents fuming as Calabasas cracks down on alleged code-violators

Upscale Calabasas at the west end of the San Fernando Valley has pumped up a controversial crackdown on rural homeowners it says are violating a new septic system ordinance.

Latest to be slapped with violations are residents of sparsely populated Old Topanga Canyon at the southeast edge of the 13-square-mile city. Officials want to construct a new sewer line in the area.

City officials say their sole aim is public health and safety. But the enforcement has fueled talk of de-annexation by Old Topanga Canyon residents who complain that Calabasas has allocated $250,000 to prosecute code “violators.”

Property owners in the oak-shaded canyon say the city is targeting them because their homes are more modest than those in nearby gated neighborhoods. They complain that some in City Hall have derisively referred to Old Topanga as “Dogpatch.”

In a July raid on a pioneering Calabasas family’s 60-acre ranch about three miles away in Stokes Canyon, city inspectors ordered water and power shut off, forcing family members off the property


“You correct one thing and they find another,” complained Chester Allen, who lives in a home built in 1939 on an acre parcel on Old Topanga Canyon’s Valdez Road. “I think the city is spying on us.”

Allen, 82, said city inspectors questioned him when they spotted him in front of his house working on his septic tank leach line. When they asked if they could take a look, Allen invited them into the yard.

Once there, “they covered everything on the property,” Allen said. “They said every building was illegal because they don’t meet the city’s current building codes. I said I thought everything was grandfathered in, that this place was ‘legal nonconforming’ since everything here was built before the city was formed” in 1991.

The retired contractor estimated that it will cost $50,000 to bring his house up to standards that officials have demanded in a 30-page complaint.

A short distance away, Robert Hahn was served with a 100-page notice and given until Oct. 10 to comply with city ordinances or board up and vacate his home of 31 years, a structure built in 1928.

Hahn, 64, said city inspectors showed up when a tenant he was attempting to evict reported a sewage smell at his Dale Road property.

“They were out here Johnny-on-the-spot,” said Hahn, a contractor who specializes in fire-proofing structures. “Seventeen people came in a caravan. They climbed over my house like ants. What they’re demanding is going to cost me $150,000. I’m going to have to tear down three-quarters of my house.”

Nancy Schreiner, a lawyer who represents Allen and formerly represented Hahn, said city officials are “opening themselves up to civil rights violations, serious ones,” by targeting elderly people who have lived in their homes 30 or 40 years.

Schreiner described Calabasas’ actions as “a sledgehammer approach … a witch hunt.” She said public entities usually work collaboratively with citizens on municipal code issues.

In the Stokes Canyon incident, Calabasas officials said they were looking for suspected sewage pollution. The Las Virgenes Municipal Water District has reactivated a fire hydrant on the ranch that the city had ordered shut and last week restored domestic water service for animals and gardens owned by Lloyd Smith and his family.

Smith’s supporters were outraged when photos taken inside of Smith’s home during the raid were posted on the city website.

“I don’t think they intend to let Lloyd return to that property,” said Jim Moorhead, a family friend who has attempted to intervene on Smith’s behalf as the 70-year-old recovers from a stress-related illness at a convalescent home.

Calabasas City Manager Tony Coroalles denied that. He said the city is willing to grandfather in a structure on the ranch for Smith to live in.

“Our sole aim is to try to get Mr. Smith back to a home that is safe and sanitary,” he said.

Coroalles said the city “does not generally search for code violations,” but doesn’t “look the other way when we see” them.

“We go out of our way to work with property owners on common-sense solutions,” he said.

In Old Topanga Canyon, some residents worry that the proposed municipal sewer line will lead to development of hillside lots now considered unbuildable. They say over-development would end their area’s rural feel.

“This has become an authoritarian city that targets its own residents with impunity. It’s domestic terrorism,” said resident Toby Keeler. He said Coroalles “runs Calabasas like an Army base and only understands the Uniform Code of Military Justice, not the Constitution.”

Coroalles, a former infantry colonel who spent 27 years in the military, said he understands the rule of law.

“If one of these unsafe, unpermitted structures were to collapse and people were hurt, we would not have much of an argument that other services were of a higher priority,” he said.

“What is at play here is that some residents in the area want to prevent other property owners from enjoying the same benefits that they enjoy,” Coroalles said. “They now fear that a sewer will make it less expensive for other property owners to build a home — and they don’t want that.”

Allen and others disagree.

“They want to run us off so they can build some mansions up here. It would be a shame to turn this into something that looks like Laurel Canyon,” he said.

“And you can tell people we don’t look like Li’l Abner.”