Lopez Canyon: Open Space Battleground
by Petra Fried in the City
Editor's note: On June 15th, the Planning and Land Use Management committee of the Los Angeles City Council will hear case number ZA-2009-3619-ZV-1A: Richard Alarcon's plan to put a Truck Driving Academy on top of a closed landfill on a hill in the middle of a residential community in the Northeast San Fernando Valley.
The Truck Driving Academy will be run by a non-profit but backed by a powerful union. The plan paves 1.5 acres of the Open Space while bringing more trucks onto the closed landfill property and into the surrounding residential neighborhoods. The free land comes with a five year lease with two possible five year renewals to the school.
On the PLUM committee is Reyes, Huizar, and Alarcon's next-door neighbor, CD 2 representative Paul Krekorian. Most of Krekorian's constituents as well as constituent groups that got him elected are resoundingly against Alarcon's project.
Special to Mayor Sam.
Kagel Canyon is an idyllic community in the unincorporated County foothills behind Lopez Canyon. Mainly lower income, and rural, it is often the last to receive services on the County side. Residents put up with the constant threat of wildfires, limited water, and so-so services for what should be a quaint, quiet country lifestyle.
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Kagel Canyon was truly very quiet, until the City of Los Angeles opened Lopez Canyon Landfill next door in 1975. The City – as embodied by the City Council representative for the district (CD 7) has been a very rude, nasty neighbor since then. For the next 20 years Kagel Canyon residents lived with the sound of hundreds of trucks, and the smell of Los Angeles’ garbage... all without any City mitigation. None. Zero. Zilch.
Finally, some reprieve when the landfill was closed in 1996 and the closure process began. Relief was on the horizon. Or so Kagel Canyon, or any sane individual would have thought.
Today, and every day since 1996, when Los Angeles City trucks start work on Lopez Canyon, Kagel Canyon knows it’s 7am – time to get up whether you’ve had your 8 hours sleep or not. Rumbling. The ground shakes. Beep beep beep go the back-up alarms – supposedly “directional” so as not to disturb the neighbors. The grinding and scraping of backhoe buckets. There is no sleeping through the onslaught. A small window of quiet does still the vibrations around lunch break at 11:30am. True peace doesn’t come until knock-off time after 3:30pm. Then it begins again the next morning.
The landfill is supposed to be “closed”, a process by which the landfill stops taking refuse and over time is capped by a required amount of dirt and clay to limit leachate and runoff. Fourteen years after closing began, Lopez is still not completely capped, something for which the State of California’s governing body - the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery - wants an immediate explanation.
The State also want an explanation for something else:
Why is the City of Los Angeles building a truck driving academy on an uncapped landfill zoned Open Space? It is not in the approved closure plan.
The answer to why can be summed up in one man: Richard Alarcon. The “how” however, is a complex tale of decades of Mafia-esque behavior, illegal activity, and environmental injustice.
The State should also be asking why the City also built a green waste recycling facility – an industrial activity bringing 35-40 trucks a day into the facility on the same landfill – in 2002? How did that happen?
The road to Open Space.
The hills that used to be Lopez Canyon Landfill lies in the northeast San Fernando Valley, at the 210 -118 Freeway split in Lake View Terrace. Bordered on the west by what’s left of the original Lopez Canyon that isn’t filled with garbage is a part of unincorporated L.A. County wherein lies Sky Terrace Mobile Home Park – damaged in the Marek Fire and, at last check, left without financial aid of any kind – and Hope Gardens, the Union Rescue Mission’s halfway residence for elderly women and mothers with children.
The land to the south of the landfill and north of the 210 freeway between Lopez Canyon Road and Osborne Street is a strictly residential part of Lake View Terrace, with another mobile home park, two schools, and equestrian properties at the edge of Los Angeles City Council District 7 (Alarcon) next to CD 2 (Krekorian). The northern part of the landfill adjoins the Angeles National Forest and over 100 acres owned by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.
To the northeast lies Kagel Canyon, bearers of the brunt of landfill impacts these past three decades.
Lopez Canyon landfill stopped accepting trash in July1996 and began the 30-year process of closing and sealing off the former landfill areas. Known as “decks”, Deck A – the area closest to Kagel Canyon residents, Deck B, Deck AB and Deck C, together with their respective slopes have dirt packed to a certain level above the garbage, sealing it from rainwater and limiting leaching and ground water contamination as the garbage decomposes and settles.
From the landfill’s opening in 1975 until its closure in July, 1996, trash was deposited into canyons, now filled and closed became the currently visible flat, clay and dirt-covered areas. According to State law, all former trash sites must be monitored for settling and methane gas emissions.
The monitored decks total 166 acres of the 399 acre Lopez Canyon Landfill property. But the entire 399 acres was zoned as Open Space in 2007, by Alarcon’s very own council motion. This is what Alarcon said then about the Open Space zoning:
Eleven years after the closure of the Lopez Canyon Landfill, Lopez Canyon today has the potential to re-emerge as a location where children and families can enjoy a safe and clean place for active and passive recreation as well as open space. Lopez Canyon Landfill yields revenues that have been placed in various funds, thus, providing seed funding for the rebirth of Lopez Canyon as an open space and recreational gem.
The City of Los Angeles has an opportunity to make good on its commitment to the Northeast San Fernando Valley community to mitigate the impact of the landfill and other environmentally hazardous land uses by using Lopez Canyon as a location that can serve the recreational and open space needs of residents.
The zoning came with formal plans for recreation on the site (scroll down). The community would like to think that Richard Alarcon meant what he said in this motion, passed unanimously by the Los Angeles City Council. Knowing Alarcon’s usual modus operandi, however, the Foothill Trails District Neighborhood Council http://www.ftdnc.org/ , within whose boundaries Lopez Canyon lies, filed the following Community Impact Statement on this council file:
At its regular meeting tonight, the General Board of Foothill Trails District Neighborhood Council voted unanimously to request that the City Council notify the public via mailings to all City And County residents within 1/4 mile and surrounding Neighborhood Councils of any new proposed uses for Lopez Canyon Landfill that are different than that adopted by Council File # 07-1660
One Kagel Canyon homeowner expresses their frustration with the ridiculously slow pace of the closure, and the new industrial uses in an Open Space zone.
“We bought house in 1997, two years after the supposed “closure”. If we thought this thing wouldn’t shut down, we’d never have bought here. My mother’s home in the heart of Van Nuys is much quieter than here.”
Another resident likens living with the noise pollution “like water torture”.
All in the family.
The neighborhood council representing all of Lake View Terrace, the Foothill Trails District NC, too have often been the recipient of Alarcon’s subtle tactics in the Lopez Canyon matter. From Mayor Sam at the time:
Alarcon Aide Issues 'Warning' to NC Board
…Tonight the Foothill Trails District Neighborhood Council had two items on their agenda directly related to Zorro Marxist’s council motion (08-0481) taking $100,000 from the Hansen Dam Environmental Awareness Center fund to pay for truck driver training.
1. presentation by Alarcon aide John De La Rosa on the truck driver training program
2. community impact statement opposing 08-0481 (because) the Hansen Dam fund is not for this purpose.
First De la Rosa, who used to run Lopez Canyon Landfill when it was open by the way, gave his own version of the history of the Fund…. De La Rosa saying that it did not matter what the City Administrative Code says about this fund. Alarcon could and will spend it any way Alarcon wants. He told the board to forget what the City Administrative Code says, end of story. ‘It’s (o8-0481) going to happen no matter what’. Also, Alarcon will be moving the money to a new fund of some kind.
… when FTDNC board were about to pass the CIS, De La Rosa in his best Sopranos voice - “(if you vote for the CIS) …you will be pitting community against community.”
Alarcon’s favorite field deputy and hit man, John De La Rosa, receives a healthy stipend granted by City Council motion for personal services – to provide expertise the Councilmember needs relative to his Council Office that is not otherwise available. What might those be?
De La Rosa is Richard Alarcon’s cousin. He has a long history with Lopez Canyon and the impacted communities. In fact, De La Rosa used to manage the entire Lopez Canyon Landfill as a Bureau of Sanitation employee when the dump was open for garbage. In fact, after years of alleged funny-business such as falsifying employee records, De La Rosa was basically forced to resign or be fired and lose his job and pension. He resigned, and his personnel file was successfully sealed. De La Rosa ran Lopez Canyon the same way Alarcon wields control over the site and the people surrounding it – with the same tactics. It is oddly fitting that the old dump manager is now Alarcon’s special community contact.
Lopez Canyon lies within the Rim of the Valley Trail Corridor, providing both a buffer and an open space trail linkage between Rim of the Valley elements. It is now part of the Federal Consolidated Natural Resources Act (P.L. 110-229, section 327). With industrial uses firmly entrenched where they shouldn’t be, the Rim of the Valley connections and uses at Lopez Canyon are now at risk.
Alarcon could not care less. The words “Rim of the Valley” might as well be “have a nice day”.
Lopez Mitigation funds: play money.
Again, from Mayor Sam at the time:
There are three or four (community mitigation) funds associated with the closed landfill in the northeast San Fernando Valley, all of which receive incoming monies from sales of methane which is a byproduct of the decades of decomposing City garbage underground. The Lopez Canyon Landfill Community Amenities Fund is supposed to benefit the people who have been highly impacted by the landfill. This area includes the parts of Lake View Terrace and Pacoima nearest Lopez Canyon, and most of unincorporated Kagel Canyon. Kagel has borne the majority of the landfill's impacts while receiving effectively none of the millions that have passed through the funds since Ernani Bernardi introduced the original motion with the best of intentions in the early 1990s.
According to Alarcon aide (and coincidentally also his cousin) John De La Rosa, the Lopez Canyon fund is supposed to be used '...for the area north of San Fernando Boulevard to Foothill Boulevard; east of Paxton Street to Osborne Street.' Completely contrary to Bernardi's original motion, De La Rosa's description of the impacted area tellingly leaves Kagel Canyon, the area most impacted by the landfill, 100% out of the picture. (There are historic reasons to believe that Bernardi envisioned the fund benefiting Kagel Canyon as well.)
When questioned last year as to why Alarcon was taking $100,000 from another of the landfill community funds (the Hansen Dam Environmental Awareness Center Fund) and using it to build a truck driving academy on the landfill property now slated to be a City park, Alarcon simply dissolved the Environmental Awareness Center fund and moved the money into the Community Amenities Fund where the motion states that the funds are to be spent at the discretion of the councilman.
Alarcon successfully completed the termination of the Hansen Dam Environmental Awareness Fund and placed the remaining cash in the Lopez Canyon Community Amenities Fund in October 2009. Today the Community Amenities Fund has for all intents and purposes gone from a community mitigation fund to a second discretionary fund for Alarcon, leaving the people impacted most by the landfill once again without a true democratic voice in how the funds are spent. Meanwhile, Alarcon's friends profit from the community's loss.
Community amenities seem like they should be permastructures, like basketball courts or playground equipment. Something those directly affected by the landfill - people in '...the area north of San Fernando Boulevard to Foothill Boulevard; east of Paxton Street to Osborne Street', and Kagel Canyon obviously - can use and enjoy.
The Lopez Canyon Community Amenities Fund is Alarcon’s play thing now, and the spending is mainly in Pacoima on items one could hardly call an amenity. His spending spree, basically unchecked, includes the following:
- $100,000 of these community amenities funds two weeks ago were diverted to pay for LAPD overtime salaries in Foothill Division.
- In February, Alarcon gave $30,000 from this fund to a Pacoima community theatre company for a youth production by one of his favorite non-profits: Youth Speak! Collective.
- $10,000 went to the Pacoima Christmas Parade in February.
- $100,000 of this fund was given to the Greater Community Missionary Baptist Church for their Community Multipurpose Center mainly serving Pacoima in January 2010.
- $100,000 to again to Youth Speak! Collective – a non-profit with ties to Alarcon’s political friends for a community garden in Feb 2009.
- $30,000 for the Hansen Dam Fourth of July fireworks show in 2009.
None of the money has ever gone to Kagel Canyon, and very little has gone to the City portion of the community most impacted by the landfill.
At a time when many truckers are out of work and the trucking jobs promised by Alarcon to academy graduates are nowhere in sight, independent truckers are fighting the City of Los Angeles tooth and nail to bypass expensive new environmental laws enacted at the Port of Los Angeles last year. Yet the Teamsters Union – profferers of the Truck Driving Academy – aren’t exactly fighting the new environmental laws. They, along with associated organized trucking companies, can afford to upgrade their trucks to meet the new environmental criteria at the Port… on the taxpayer dime. Many of their members were recipients of $44 million in taxpayer money to do so, and not surprisingly, they’re not keeping up their end of the bargain nor are they being made to do so, according to the Los Angeles Business Journal.
Authorities in the field say that the 1.5 acres being forced upon Lopez Canyon is too small for proper truck driver training. Although flush with more taxpayer money than we could possibly know about, it appears that the Teamsters do not want to pay a nominal fee to rent industrial property in CD 7 on flat land that is actually suitable for a truck driving school.
Although opinionated, one Mayor Sam commenter recently summarized this aspect of Alarcon's plan fairly well:
“There is only one reason this City is poised to grant a horrible zoning variance in the middle of Open Space in Lopez Canyon to allow an industrial diesel spewing truck driving school-- the … AFL-CIO ... does not want to use its federal grant funds to pay rent at a more appropriate location!
The Lopez Canyon Truck Driving School is ALL ABOUT Villaraigosa and Alarcon HANDING CITY ASSETS OVER to political cronies in the unions and in this case it's free use of taxpayer-owned City land for this school…All of this has been orchestrated from the Mayor's office by Deputy Mayor Larry Frank -- himself a former union attorney flack -- steering the federal job training money to enrich the Mayor's union buddies.
After enduring years of garbage trucks running up and down residential streets near Lopez Canyon, the community understandably is ready to fight for some environmental justice. The Mayor and Alarcon are ...trying to make the community's children be exposed to 5, 10 or 15 more years of diesel and harmful truck noise when they just finished enduring more than 20 years of a sanitary landfill jammed down their throats… The residents of Lopez and other areas nearby need the unified voice of Neighborhood Councils and community groups from all over the City writing to the Mayor and Alarcon saying:
No economic downturn justifies you to ignore the fundamental zoning and federal grant rules to site a semi-truck driving school in the hillside open space zone of Lopez Canyon. Tell your union buddies to locate some more appropriate commercial/industrial land in an proper land use zone and pay the damn rent!"
What Alarcon says to those who actually listen to the aging demagogue about opposition to his land grab runs along these lines. Paraphrased: It’s all about jobs for people in Pacoima, and those people who live around the landfill are just selfish NIMBYs.
“Infrasound” and Vibroacoustic Disease.
Infrasound is sound that is lower in frequency than 20 Hz (Hertz) or cycles per second, the normal limit of human hearing. Hearing becomes gradually less sensitive as frequency decreases, so for humans to perceive infrasound, the sound pressure must be sufficiently high. The ear is the primary organ for sensing infrasound, but at higher levels it is possible to feel infrasound vibrations in various parts of the body.
Vibroacoustic Disease is a cumulative and chronic disease caused by exposure to infrasound. Infrasound is low frequency sound energy that affects the nervous system and prolonged exposure can lead to progressive medical conditions. Noise pollution is unwanted human-created sound that has the effect of being annoying, distracting, painful, or physically harmful. Sound triggers an involuntary stress response commonly known as "flight or flight." This results in the secretion of adrenaline, with ensuing spikes in cardio-respiratory rates, muscle tension, and elevated blood pressure.
People exposed to noise pollution suffer from hearing loss, sleep deprivation, chronic fatigue, anxiety, hostility, depression and hypertension. The World Health Organization, National Institutes of Health, United Nations and numerous scientific and medical publications recognize noise pollution and its deleterious effects. The City of Los Angeles, however, doesn’t give a damn if its planning policies and practices are any indication.
Those NIMBYs, as Alarcon calls them, are people who have varying degrees of Vibroacoustic Disease, and who desperately need some relief from the Infrasound and the rank odors emanating from the tons of green waste mixture of yard trimmings and horse manure as it is turned and mixed daily.
It's about what Richard wants.
It’s 2002 and enter the first new industrial use installed on Lopez Canyon land, the Green Waste Recycling Facility by Alarcon’s then heir apparent: Alex Padilla. It goes by the innocuous name of The Lopez Canyon Environmental Center. Entirely out of keeping with other landfills undergoing closure in Los Angeles, this is precedent-setting. It will be used against the community when the Truck Driving Academy appears on Alarcon’s radar in 2009. Does this sound familiar?
A task force of Lopez Canyon Landfill neighbors (individuals, neighborhood associations, local non-profits) sic was formed to meet with Bureau of Sanitation representatives to determine the feasibility of siting a composting facility at the closed landfill and to advise the Bureau on (the Green waste recycling facility). Meetings were held for 9 months discussing topics that included noise, odor and traffic concerns and mitigations, site design, composting methods, and landscaping. As a result of these meetings Sanitation redesigned portions of the proposed facility, made changes to the originally proposed operations, hired a noise consultant to design noise mitigation measures and brought in a Bureau landscape architect to develop the landscaping plan. A Mitigated Negative Declaration was prepared and approved, a Memorandum of Understanding was written and signed by the Task Force and the facility became a reality in December 2003.
Alarcon always stacks the deck when he wants something, something Padilla learned well. Alarcon hand-picks his individuals, neighborhood associations, and local favored non-profits to get the result he wants. The “Lopez Canyon Community Advisory Committee” is just one example of a hand-picked committee Alarcon uses to rubber stamp his activities there.
If handpicking committees isn’t enough, Alarcon buses “stakeholders” in to meetings, as this author witnessed in a community fight to keep a major league sized baseball stadium from being built in a residential community. He also controls media perception. When reporters visit Kagel Canyon, if Alarcon knows about it in advance, he orders all work stopped at Lopez so that the trucks can’t be heard: the Kagel community sounds like liars. Last Tuesday in Council during the confirmation hearing of Irma Munoz to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy board, while other councilmembers asked Ms. Munoz her plans/qualifications/goals, Alarcon instead went on the offensive, overtly attempting to intimidate her with respect to the SMMC's opposition of the Truck Driving Academy.
Improper use of a Variance.
Zoning variances are are for residential use primarily, in neighborhoods where the majority have a certain amenity but some in the neighborhood do not enjoy the same property rights as neighbors because they don’t quite meet a zoning requirement. That is when a variance might be granted. They are not for use by the City in an attempt to re purpose open space such as what is happening now.
Reading the Zoning Hearing Administrator’s Findings of Fact shows you how hard she had to work to make the language try to work for this project. There are no perceived property rights from nearby zones to compare with. The zoning administrator tries to make significant comparisons, but over all fails, making some key mistakes in her findings. For example:
“The use of Open Space property for non-recreational use is not uncommon as exemplified by gravel mining operations around Hansen Dam…”
Fact of the matter is that Hansen Dam is not City land, but Federal Land, managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Dept of Recreation and Parks leases Hansen Dam for use as Open Space. At the time the mining activity was taking place, the land where mining was taking place was not leased by the City as it is today. Other comparisons to strips of land under power lines are just plain silly. The variance criteria falls on its face right here.
There are other things to take issue with in the Zoning Administrator's certification of the Mitigated Negative Declaration for the Truck Driving Academy. An alternative site wasn’t even named or studied as required by a mitigated negative declaration. That in itself is lawsuit material. All supporters speaking at the hearing (besides Alarcon, giving the benefit of the doubt) have some form of material interest in the Academy. CEQA regarding the truck driver rural training section was ignored in the MND.
There is also the question of how some support letters were obtained by Council District 7 for the application. At least one claiming to represent a major local community entity did not go through official channels and does not represent the position of the entity in question. How the letter was obtained, and by whom is under investigation at the time of the publication of this article.
David verses Big Brother.
With the deck perpetually stacked by Alarcon, Kagel Canyon and its concerned neighbors, collectively known as the Community Alliance for Open Space (email to: lopezopenspace(at)yahoo.com ) will likely have to sue the City in open court to force it to obey its own laws and to achieve environmental justice at last.
On their side, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the Sierra Club, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors – all five of them, and more than ten neighborhood councils.
Standing between them and peace and quiet, and good health – the demagogue of CD 7 and his extended family, his two favorite neighborhood councils (Pacoima and Mission Hills) who are, not surprisingly, well-stocked with favored operatives, and a union who has in the past no doubt made many contributions to Alarcon's political career.
Lawsuits cost money, something that is not in abundance in the modest community. So for now, the pancake breakfasts and car washes continue while hoping beyond hope that on June 15th, the PLUM committee will somehow decide to do what is right over what Richard Alarcon wants.
Perhaps the ultimate irony in the struggle over Lopez Canyon is that the fate of Open Spaces across the City may rest in the hands of a community group whose core constituency doesn't even live in the City.