The bulldozer growled at Ellen Scott's back. She sat fast, crying, her heart pounding.
She was determined to halt a developer's work tearing up the popular Hastain Trail in Franklin Canyon. Even for a day.
"It was like seeing something horrible," Scott recalled of the construction scene. She had always been thankful for the regiments of coast live oaks and willows that line the trail where hikers have trodden since the 1960s. Her hope was "let it be here forever."
But that is unlikely if real estate developer Mohamed Hadid has his way.
Hadid, 62, who has designed and built more than a dozen Ritz-Carlton hotels and many Beverly Hills mega-mansions, owns 97 acres abutting Franklin Canyon Park between the San Fernando Valley and Beverly Hills. The Hastain Trail bisects about 45 acres of his property. Much to the chagrin of environmentalists, hikers and mountain bikers, Hadid now wants to build on his land.
"I understand they believe the land belongs to them because they have been hiking here and there for years.... But it's private land," Hadid said.
The property is zoned for as many as 11 homes. Hadid said he wants to build six or seven houses on the ridgeline. He envisions a mix of luxury Mediterranean and contemporary-style homes, structured to blend into the mountainside, with at least 10 acres separating them.
Scott failed to stop the bulldozer by sitting in front of it — Hadid showed up and politely ordered her off his property — but she soon launched a grassroots group called Save Franklin Canyon. Hundreds of people have pledged their support.
Stephen Jones, a land use and real estate litigation attorney, has agreed to help the group prepare a lawsuit. They will try to get a public easement for the trail, a 2.3-mile loop that climbs on a fire road through lush shrub-land to a ridge.
Jones argues that there is a strong case based on the rule of "implied dedication." This gives the public rights over private land if it is proved to have been used as a trail for five years consecutively before 1972, he said.
People who regularly hiked the lands years ago will be called to testify, Jones said. Dated photos and aerial shots will also be gathered as evidence.
The opponents have gotten the attention of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority and the city of Los Angeles.
The authority tried to buy Hadid's land. But his asking price was too high, and the agency can only pay the appraised value, said Paul Edelman, deputy director of natural resources and planning for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.
"His expectations are meteoric," Edelman said.
"This is evidently about one developer's desire to profit versus the rights of the public to enjoy nature in their midst," said Beverly Hills Councilman John Mirisch, another opponent of the development.
Hadid said that he has been offered $15 million for 40 acres of his land by a private buyer, but that he is open to compromise. He said he suggested that the conservancy contribute about $3.8 million —reportedly the appraisal figure for the land — and said he would help raise additional funds through other means.
But the response from conservancy officials has been lukewarm, the developer said
Hadid was born near Nazareth, today the largest predominantly Arab city in Israel. He has built all over the world. He said he wants to balance the various concerns surrounding his Franklin Canyon property, but noted that there are no easements or restrictions in his title to the land.
He made clear he wouldn't be bullied: "I am a developer. I buy land to build on it. I don't buy land to give it away," he said.
Hadid said he was forced to erect several barriers along the portion of the trail that crosses his property to prevent people from vandalizing his construction machinery.
Edelman said his agency would continue negotiations with Hadid. But any deal would have to be affordable and "loaded with constraints" in regard to development, Edelman said.
Hadid still must get a permit from the city of L.A. to build. His plans were approved years ago. But permits have expired and city officials say he may have a difficult time renewing them because the rules have been tightened. Hadid has already been cited by the city for the bulldozer work, which he said was part of soil studies.
"Just because it's his land, it doesn't mean he can build anything," said Los Angeles Councilman Paul Koretz. "He has to go through the process … and it's a tougher process."
On a recent afternoon, Scott and several of her activist friends set out along the Hastain Trail.
It's something Scott has done for the last 25 years, seeking a reprieve from the congestion of her Valley Village neighborhood.
"It's something that people need more than ever," said the 53-year-old elementary school librarian and author and illustrator of children's' books, "especially with space disappearing."
"Twenty years ago, there was really nothing here," said fellow hiker Nicole Fogel, 37, who grew up in Beverly Hills and takes to the trail nearly every day.
Rob Warner, 53, who has ridden his bike in the mountains for two decades, pointed to the many homes that have cropped up on the ridgeline.
"It's got to stop somewhere," Warner said.
The canyon is unique among city parks and "cannot be replaced," Coldwater Canyon resident and attorney Steven Weinberg chimed in as he gestured at the expanse of greenery.
The hikers meandered past bushes and trees, many tagged with paper signs bearing slogans such as "Stop Hadid Building" and "We need this Canyon."
Less than a mile up the trial, the group's path was blocked by a chain link fence, which protesters had papered with signs calling for Hadid's development to stop. The posters also identified the various areas that hikers hailed from: Beverly Hills, Van Nuys, North Hollywood, Los Angeles.
Terry Brown and Lisa Leopold stood on the other side of the fence. The mother and daughter had entered the trail from the opposite end. They had not expected their way to be barred.
Mirisch, the Bevelry Hills official, helped the pair squeeze through a small gap at the side of the fence. "I'm just shocked," said the daughter. "We've been coming up here for years."