Landowner fights lonely battle for farm's future

In a remote part of the hills above La Cañada Flintridge, a landowner is fighting a lonely battle on whether small-scale commercial farming, practiced here since the late 1800s, still has a place.

William Johnson owns 67 acres along Angeles Crest Highway, where city limits abut National Forest land. He is fighting on two fronts for the right to maintain a tiny farming operation that includes a persimmon orchard and horses.

Johnson Ranch makes use of an additional 11 acres owned by Southern California Edison, land that Johnson claims the right to use. City officials dispute this, saying it cannot be farmed because it is zoned as open space. That’s a problem for Johnson, as much of his 475-tree persimmon grove is planted there.

The conflict prompted Johnson to file a lawsuit against the city in 2008, but a judge has placed any decision on hold until June pending city revisions to the zoning code. City officials say they are looking into its definition of “open space” to see if there’s a way to give Johnson at least part of what he wants.

Complicating the issue, officials are currently looking to revise La Cañada’s general plan — the city’s foundational land-use document. Johnson says the two are related; the city says changes to the general plan and revisions to the zoning code are separate issues.

In any event, California state law requires that a city’s zoning map be consistent with its general-plan land-use map.

Johnson has more recently lobbied, without success, city officials to include language about agricultural land use in its draft revisions to the general plan, arguing La Cañada’s agricultural heritage merits preservation of small-scale farming. Public hearings on proposed changes are scheduled for the spring.

“This is the only farm left in La Cañada and I want to keep it. I want local kids to be able to have that kind of experience,” said Johnson.

He said he previously raised alpacas and a half-dozen head of cattle for use in 4-H programs, but stopped in 2009 under threat of city code enforcement penalties.

While Johnson appears perfectly comfortable strolling his rustic hillside orchard and former cow pasture, he is no stranger to law and politics.

An attorney and former candidate for L.A. Superior Court judge, Johnson has been connected to white separatist movements. He currently chairs a group called American Third Position, whose mission statement is “to represent the political interests of white Americans.” Johnson declined to comment about his political activity, saying, “I keep a lot of aspects of my life separate and I don’t go into them when discussing local affairs.”

While political ideology may not play a role in the conflict over keeping animals and fruit trees, city officials say Johnson is simply mistaken about what he can and cannot with the Edison-owned land.

“The [current] general plan has indicated the Edison right-of-way as open space and we’re not planning on changing that, so the general-plan process is not involved in the dispute that makes up the lawsuit,” said City Attorney Mark Steres.

Agriculture is not dealt with in the current general plan or in drafts of proposed revisions, said city Planning Director Robert Stanley.

Johnson fears that’s a de facto move to destroy it.

“The general plan is the most basic constitution, so if they don’t do anything now, then agriculture will be gone. They’re going to push agriculture out,” he said.

Johnson recently submitted proposed amendments to the general plan that would formally recognize his ranch in upper Gould Canyon, along with another nearby property, as land suitable for agriculture.

He writes that his land and the disputed Edison property once were part of a more than 1,000-acre farm maintained by prominent attorney and landowner William Gould, for whom the canyon and Gould Avenue were named.

And while Johnson believes agricultural rights on the Edison property were permanently deeded by Gould, city officials read the situation differently.

“He does have some sort of easement to [the Edison land], but we think that easement is more for access than to have uses there. What we’re saying is he cannot have those uses in that area because it’s open space,” said Stanley.

Nonetheless, David and Gwyn Sivertsen, who own an undeveloped 200-plus acre parcel at the top of Gould Canyon that features a wild elderberry grove and small-scale beekeeping operation, would take comfort in the general plan weighing in on agricultural land.

“We’d certainly support that notion. It would be nice in a town that was once mainly agricultural. Even if there aren’t structures left, it’s historic,” said Gwyn Sivertsen.

Johnson hopes to begin producing organically grown Japanese-style dried persimmons for sale at local farmers’ markets when his trees reach maturity in three years.

“There’s a big movement to get back to the land, get away from big farms and go back to small-time farming. If La Cañada doesn’t plan for that it’s really going to be sad,” he said.

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