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Court supports real estate developer's right to keep hikers off his land

Court supports real estate developer's right to keep hikers off his land
Signs of discontent were posted along Hastain trail in L.A.'s Franklin Canyon Park in April 2011, to protest proposed real estate development by Mohamed Hadid, whose property includes parts of the trail. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The fight continues.

An appellate court last week sided with a Los Angeles real estate developer who has been embroiled in a legal battle for years with a group of activists over their right to use a popular hiking trail that cuts across his property, which he is seeking to develop.

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The court's decision is "a relief," said Mohamed Hadid, who has developed buildings all over the world, including more than a dozen Ritz-Carlton hotels. "This has been very costly for me, mentally and financially over the years," he said. "Now I can continue the process of development."

But the battle isn't over for the group of passionate nature-lovers who filed the original lawsuit against Hadid four years ago. They plan to seek a rehearing. And if that doesn't work, they will petition the California Supreme Court.

"Friends of the Hastain Trail" is a group of about seven activists, led by Ellen Scott, seeking to preserve the Hastain Trail in Franklin Canyon, situated between the San Fernando Valley and Beverly Hills.

Since the group was founded in 2011, hundreds have pledged their support and contributed to the effort.  Scott, age 58, has been hiking the trail since she was in her 20s and was shocked by the court's recent ruling.

"When I got the e-mail, I was shaking," said Scott. "It's a beautiful trail, People have been hiking it for 50 years."

Ellen Scott, left and John Mirisch, walk up Hastain trail in L.A.'s Franklin Canyon Park. Scott has led others in protesting development that would prevent hikers from enjoying the trail.
Ellen Scott, left and John Mirisch, walk up Hastain trail in L.A.'s Franklin Canyon Park. Scott has led others in protesting development that would prevent hikers from enjoying the trail. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

In 2013, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos ordered Hadid to stop interfering with public recreational use of the land. The 2013 ruling was based on a 1970 law that said the public can obtain an "easement," or a right to cross or use, private property that has been openly traversed for at least five years.  The law was revoked in 1972, but remains applicable to cases that occurred before that time.

To win the case, Friends of Hastain Trail recruited a group of seven "legacy hikers" to testify that the trail was popularly traversed for more than five years before 1972.  They also provided dated photos and aerial shots as evidence.

But Hadid maintains that he did not receive a fair trial.

"I don't believe the lower judge really understood the case," Hadid said. "I don't think she even had a clue about real estate. She just decided to side with the hikers rather than the ownership."

Hadid and his attorneys appealed the lower court's decision, which was overturned this week, arguing that just because people have been allowed to walk on the land doesn't mean they should have a right to it.

The land, which Hadid has owned since 2002, is zoned for up to 13 houses and covers about 100 acres.

He said he plans to build just four or five homes that will blend into the landscape and be surrounded by lots of vegetation.  The development would bring revenue  to the city from permit costs and taxes as well as jobs, Hadid said.

"There is a lot of benefit to projects like this, and I hope the city will allow me to go forward," he added.

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In addition, Hadid said that allowing strangers to walk on private property brings various liabilities. He expressed concerns about hikers leaving trash and getting injured.

"If someone falls, it's your responsibility," he said.

Hadid said he once volunteered to pay a woman's hospital expenses after she was bitten by a dog that was unleashed by another hiker on the property. Other accidents included a hiker falling into a hole, and another being stung by bees, but Hadid did not pay for those injuries.

Still, he said he does not plan to totally block the hikers out. He wants to gift some of the land to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which manages the nearby Franklin Canyon Park, and create an alternate trail loop for hikers.

"My plan is to include lookout points, areas to rest and have a drink, and safe entry and exit points," he said. "I want to make it comfortable for hikers, and even bicycle riders."

Franklin Canyon's Hastain Trail offers views of Century City, Westwood and more.
Franklin Canyon's Hastain Trail offers views of Century City, Westwood and more. (Charles Fleming / Los Angeles Times)

Stephen L. Jones, attorney for Friends of the Hastain Trail, said Hadid's alternative trail is not satisfactory. He said the land is at a much lower elevation, does not reach any peaks and only has lookouts facing only west.

"It's not even close to being the same thing," he said.

Scott said she doesn't believe Hadid will follow through on these promises anyway.

"He says stuff, but that doesn't mean anything will happen," she said.

In 2011, Scott attempted to halt the developer's grading work, which she said he was doing without a permit, by sitting in front of a bulldozer on the property.

"I would probably do that again," she said after this week's ruling.

In response to the bulldozing incident, Hadid said, "What I do on my property is between me and the city."

"I could have had her arrested," he said, adding that he is seeking more than $7 million in legal fees against her.

Scott is optimistic that the Court of Appeal will grant her group another hearing.

"If they're following the letter of the law, they should," Scott said.

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