Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Happenings: Benz Road Woes

After taking a trip to Lombardi Ranch for corn, I decided to stop by Benz Road and admire the diverter. The white-washed tagging on the K-rail spoke to its impending demise: "THIS DOESN'T WORK" and "NOT SAFE!" A woman driving by echoed these sentiments. She paused and we conversed thusly:

HER "Are you taking pictures to complain?"
ME "Yeah." [hopes that's the correct response]
HER "Good!" [speeds off]

Background for those in need: Benz Road was very heavily used as a cut-through to get from Copper Hill Drive to Bouquet Canyon Road, much to the displeasure of Benz Road homeowners. After years of begging for a solution, a diverter was installed to cut down on the traffic speeding through Benz. Outcry from neighboring drivers over the diverter very quickly precipitated this afternoon’s special City Council meeting.

Today's special meeting got off to a good start. Most mercifully, Mayor Kellar suggested that comments be kept under one minute. Even with this reduction in talk time, the sheer volume of speakers meant about an hour of comments.

As a group, the speakers reaffirmed that Santa Claritans are very healthy communicators, utterly unafraid to make venomous remarks about their neighbors for the record. Those who opposed the diverter did everything from shouting semi-coherently about how Benz Road residents “should not inconvenience us, they should move!” to talking about how their special needs kids now had to sit on the bus for unacceptably longer commutes. Speakers who liked the diverter compared the crowd against it to a kid screaming for a candy bar in the market. Quality of life trumped convenience, they claimed.

Both sides struggled to own the “safety” angle. Benz Road residents and supporters pointed out how having a diverter made Benz Road a much safer place for homeowners and their children. Fans of the cut-through countered with the argument that fire trucks wouldn’t be able to quickly reach families in need with the diverter in place. While I’m sure some of these people were sincere, there’s no doubt that others were using “slower emergency response time” as code for “I miss my shortcut.”

I quickly reached hyperbole overload, desensitized to real safety issues by the sensational claims people were making. It was the end of the world no matter what the Council decided.

At the end of public comments, a few distinct options emerged:

1. Leave the diverter for the 3-month study period. Let the data dictate what is done next.
2. Diverter out, speed bumps in.
3. Diverter out! Diverter out! Diverter out!
4. Close off Benz Road at its origin (Copper Hill) to alleviate problems.

So you're not in suspense any longer, they went with No. 2. Interpret that as you will.

The decision came after a fair bit of back and forth among councilmembers. Particularly vociferous was Mayor Pro-Tem Ferry, so much so that Councilmember Ender said—good naturedly, of course--“I want one of those marshmallow guns so I can shoot you for you to stop talking.” Ferry unveiled a grand plan for the City to stop a number of traffic regulating measures. He said that if roads are available, they ought to be used. Ferry feared that giving Benz Road speed bumps would lead to every citizen in Santa Clarita demanding them for their own streets. He even talked about how longer car trips around the diverter would contribute to global warming. After all, it is well known that our local contribution to climate change is the thing that keeps Ferry up at night.

Councilmember Laurene Weste demolished a number of Ferry’s arguments quite succinctly. By this point, it was clear that the diverter was toast, so she focused on Ferry’s remarks about speed bumps/humps/cushions, which were proposed as an alternative. She said Ferry couldn't have it both ways (basically he said that speed bumps would not work at all but everybody in SCV would want them and the City would have to pay). She said that trying the speed bumps could be a good way to establish once and for all whether they work, and Ender mentioned how the investment could be reused elsewhere if found ineffective for Benz. Councilmember McLean had a fair bit to say too, agreeing with Ferry on the speed bumps: “Speed bumps, speed cushions—everybody thinks that’s going to be the panacea but it’s not.” But nothing was more entertaining than when she struck back at audience members hissing at her: “I can hiss back at you [hisses, smiles wryly]” Sometimes, sometimes, I really like her pluck.

Eventually, Ferry made a three-pronged motion to remove the diverter, replace turn restrictions, and have staff work on comprehensive, city-wide policy against certain traffic regulating measures like speed bumps, special restrictions, and diverters. The vote failed, and Council then weighed in on several smaller motions. Here’s how all the votes went:

So basically, the diverter is gone, turn restrictions returned, and it ends up that Marsha McLean and Frank Ferry think a lot alike when it comes to traffic.

So is everything resolved? It's quite unlikely. We're in for hearing about how expensive the speed humps are, who will foot the bill, the results of their implementation, etc... Of course, then there's Nadine Teter who said that a reliable source had told her the City Council agreed to remove the diverter well before having the special meeting. Will she pursue this alleged violation of the Brown Act, as promised/threatened?

There are at least four things to be learned about Santa Claritans from this clash:
1. We don't want anyone's kids to get run over, but if it gets to that point, we volunteer to have their kids run over, not our own.
2. People will insist that there are solutions to problems that quite plainly don't have solutions--we just need more studies and creative thinking!
3. It's Southern California, and there's nothing like driving to get us fired up.
4. Those who complain the loudest win--at least sometimes.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Happenings: Hospital Talk, STAT!

Before Talking Hospital...

Tonight’s City Council meeting rushed headlong towards discussion of the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital/G&L Realty expansion plan. There was a nice pause to recognize the team of Claritans who work at JPL and helped on the Mars Phoenix Project, but after that, things moved with great haste. Public participation was moved to the end of the meeting, and the Council breezed through an 8 item consent calendar in a matter of seconds. The public hearing that preceded the HMNMH discussion got a continuation, and we were suddenly onto the topic that brought the people to City Hall: the Master Plan for Henry Mayo.

Presentations Times Three
Staff brought things to a profound halt with their presentations. The PowerPoint slides and monotone spiels were necessary evils, though, getting everyone on the same page—theoretically.

1. The first presentation was a general review of the history of the expansion project and a summary of the revisions incorporated into the Master Plan now before council. We were reminded that the applicants would like to build more than 60 feet above present height limits, that they plan to unceremoniously plop enormous office buildings and parking structures into the heart of suburbia, etc…

The City took the interesting tack of putting “Inpatient Building” at the top of a list of what applicants G&L Realty/HMNMH are requesting to build. This new hospital building will be neither the largest nor the first-built component of the project, but it was plainly the part that expansion-advocates wanted to highlight. In the comedy portion of the program, we learned about the “major modifications” made to the old Master Plan after public input. These included making one of the parking structures subterranean, reducing overall square footage, enhanced landscaping, and pedestrian "amenities.”

2. The second presentation was about the revised EIR. It included a new emphasis on how the hospital’s construction will impact global warming. I couldn’t help but laughing, imagining how global climate models will change based on what happens in a tiny piece of a tiny city on a tiny bit of the earth’s surface. It was far less amusing to learn that there will be “significant and unavoidable” deterioration of air quality and increase in noise during construction of the campus. Impacts on traffic were kind of breezed over.

The most interesting part was learning about the alternatives explored in the EIR, including building of the Inpatient Building only, of a shorter Inpatient Building, of only some of the Medical Office Buildings, etc…

3. The final presentation dealt with the development agreement. That’s the means of compelling construction of the new Inpatient Building. The developer must submit plans for the hospital and have “steel in the air” on the new Inpatient Building before they can occupy and/or construct some of the medical office buildings. It’s kind of like bribing a kid to eat his vegetables (i.e., expand the hospital) by promising him a big piece of chocolate cake (i.e., lucrative medical office buildings) afterwards. The presentation disclosed that there is still a “no obligation to develop clause” that means the Inpatient Building could, quite legally, never be built. This was tempered by the promise that there will be no eminent domain and the assertion that the present development agreement is relatively stringent(ish).

Roger Seaver Speaks, Craig Peters Insults

The “applicant” was given 30 minutes to present its case. HMNMH CEO Roger Seaver started things off with the predictable “This is not just about medical buildings” speech. He flaunted benefits of the Master Plan: a neonatal ICU, increasing the number of operating rooms by 50%, and “enhanced architecture on all buildings to reflect ‘the look of Valencia.’” He emphasized the word “community.” I heard little hope in his voice, just fatigue from a very, very long process.

Craig Peters, Senior V.P. of Industrial Properties at CB Richard Ellis, and member of the hospital board was next to speak. Excuse me: Mr. Peters was the next one to allow us the distinct pleasure of hearing his voice and marveling at his 80s-style coiffure. Indeed, Craig Peters came off as pompous, condescending, and self-important. He urged the City Council to ignore the “handful of opponents” to the project, dismissing them as “NIMBYs” and “no-growthers.” Only commercial real estate experts can truly understand the complexities of the Master Plan, he explained to the unwashed masses in the audience. Anyone else really ought to just shut up and accept that G&L Realty has to move forward with expansion as laid out in the Master Plan. In short, he decided to insult the opposition rather than entice or persuade them. We shall see how well it works.

Public Comments
Emotional Story Sharers—Support and Opposition
Many of the comments from the public were highly emotional. A man in the midst of battle against lymphoma, parents whose children had been hurt in accidents, and a mother requiring two emergency C-sections all shared their stories. The story-sharers speaking in favor of the Master Plan said we couldn’t wait any longer—a let’s-take-what-we-can-get-approach. The story-sharers against the Master Plan wanted desperately to see more hospital before more medical office buildings. One speaker suggested that more MOBs could interfere with the ability of people to get in and out of the hospital, thereby hurting those most in need.

In Support
Several doctors came forward in support, as did residents expressing the sentiment “I went to Henry Mayo and it was great; give them what they want.”

In Opposition—[I’m growing weary; prepare for sloppy transitions]
There were several technical objections to the Master Plan. Speakers mentioned that “Master plans must conform to their underlying zone”—it’s on the books—and this project would violate zoning ordinances. Cam Noltemeyer asked why the hospital was reduced in square footage when it’s the one element of the project we most need. She wondered why G&L office buildings are allowed to sprawl forcing the Inpatient Tower to soar 100’ into the air.

Several poked fun at ads released by the hospital. Dr. Gene Dorio said that 4 of the 7 doctors quoted in a pro-expansion ad said the “ad distorts their opinions of the Master Plan.” Dorio said the helipad was very poorly sited and would require awkward trips in elevators and across a 1/3 mile stretch to deliver critical patients to the hospital.

Lindsey was the first of three Newhalls to speak out against the hospital (whose namesake happens to be her ancestor). Reena Newhall was predictably outspoken, ridiculing an ad put out that made factually impossible claims about how long a doctor worked at HMNMH. Tony Newhall began with a dramatic flourish that pushed Recuse-a-thon-’08 forward. He handed over papers to City Council that will impel SmartGrowthSCV efforts to have Frank Ferry and Laurie Ender recuse themselves for being unduly biased in favor of the hospital expansion. He closed by saying “This deal is about real estate” and that Santa Clarita needs “less office space, more operating rooms.”

TimBen Boydston revealed the fruits of his independent research into the parking situation at HMNMH. He requested half-an-hour to detail his findings at a special meeting in November. Tonight, he was ready to make the claim that “The project has a huge parking deficit” and that the study used to defend parking plans had “huge flaws”, not the least of which was provisioning zero parking spaces for ER patients.

Roger Rebuts, Except Not
Seaver had a chance to rebut, but he basically conveyed that he’d rather just send a written reply. At the urging of Councilmember Laurene Weste and the questioning of Mayor Pro-Tem Frank Ferry, he talked a little, but it’s safe to say his real rebuttal to accusations made during tonight’s meeting will come later and in writing.

Laurie Ender asked a quite important question quite frankly: “Is there enough parking in this plan?” Seaver replied “I can say with great confidence there is.” After the many accusations that preceded this reply, I think we still have those who remain less than convinced.

Council Comments
Councilmember Marsha McLean offered certain proof that she has been doing her reading about the Master Plan. She presented papers littered with sticky notes and asked a number of questions that had come up during her close reading. Many of these weren’t answered very satisfactorily by City staff, but they helped define areas to clarify in future meetings.

Ferry finally responded to the cries for recusal. He quite correctly asserted that people want their elected officials to hold and express opinions. He said that’s all he’s been doing while contending that “My mind’s always open.” Unfortunately, he talked about the expansion as something that is unequivocally going to happen—he’ll make it the best expansion possible, but some kind of expansion is a foregone conclusion. This is why people will still cry “Recuse!”--he should also be open to considering the option of flat-out rejecting the Master Plan.

Public Participation
Public Participation consisted of people who stayed till the bitter end to speak speaking about how they disliked having to stay till the bitter end to speak. The idea of moving PP to the end of the meeting was Ken Pulskamp’s, according to TimBen Boyston, and I must say that I kind of like it. As Mayor Kellar pointed out, it makes sure that people whose items are on the agenda get a fair chance to speak. It also means that you really have to care about what you have to say in order to stick around to say it, so getting whole neighborhoods to show up will prove harder to accomplish and thus even more impressive at upcoming meetings. After these comments, the meeting mercifully adjourned.

Everyone wants a new, bigger, better hospital. The plans to expand the campus are very big plans indeed, but most of the space is going towards medical office buildings, not a hospital. Even after revisions and scaling back, buildings on the campus will grossly violate the building height and density standards for residential low zones. Before a decision is reached, there must be significant clarification reagarding: the traffic and parking issue, commitment to Centers of Excellence, and a convincing discussion of why we can't go ahead with one of the less-dense alternatives presented in the EIR.

Monday, September 22, 2008

PSA*: Claritans Need More Medical Office Space...NOW!

*Public Service Announcement
On the HMNMH campus. Taken 9/18.
Just across from City Hall. Taken 9/22.
Near the Lyons/Wiley intersection. Taken 9/22.

Hospital beds and operating rooms can wait. The people of Santa Clarita need more medical office space. And they need it now.

It’s time we get together as a community and support the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital Master Plan. G&L Realty will ensure that two enormous medical office buildings are built before a new inpatient building is even considered. The longer we wait, the longer people will be forced to schedule elective medical procedures at inconvenient times.

Please, show your support on Tuesday, September 23 at 6pm, when the City Council assembles to discuss the Master Plan. We can't afford to wait any longer.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Happenings: Conservative Clarita

When J to the Wilson broke news that Claritans are donating twice as much money to Obama as McCain[1], I feared for the conservative heart of SCV. I decided to investigate how well the Red State lifestyle is doing in Santa Clarita by going on the ultimate Red-Valley-in-a-Blue-State-Friday-night: Republican Rally followed by Church BBQ. I am pleased to say that I had little to fear. Clarita’s still conservative despite lackluster donations to the cause.

Republican Warehouse* Warming
*Warehouse exports traditional American Values

Though I’ll be voting McCain-Palin, I found the grand opening of the new SCV Republican headquarters[2] a bit, well, awkward. My few conversations were terse and clumsy. In a sea of middle-aged suburbanites with kids in tote and silvering grand dames of the GOP, I ended up resorting to my comfort zone: sit and judge—in the most supportive way possible, of course.

The new headquarters are essentially a warehouse, but the building is not without its perks. For example, the roll-up metal door for industrial loading/unloading offered excellent ventilation. To be fair, there were actual, air-conditioned rooms that had been built in the back of the concrete shell. I christened these the inner sanctum, housing the phones, “McCain/Palin 08” yard signs, and other accoutrements vital to winning a campaign.

"You can put Palin posters on cement walls but they’re still cement walls", Obama is alleged to have said[3]. And yes, I know the pictures are very bad.

Filling the space were many Claritans of Consequence. Hunt Braly[4] puttered around, eating an enormous bunch of green grapes. He was working the room, darting purposefully from one friend to the next. My attempts at eavesdropping on his almost certainly important conversations failed miserably; all I got was a suspicious glance. (Note to self: invest in eavesdropping device advertised on late-night infomercial).

Councilmember Laurie Ender came in later. She was all smiles. Kevin Korenthal, the conservative “SoCalPundit”[5], was also present. An emissary from Buck McKeon’s office showed up. Suffice it to say the people here were more important than those at the opening of the Democrat Headquarters in Newhall.

I’m not sure what kind of food was offered at that other, bluer opening, but offerings here were modest—crackers with cheese slices; chips and salsa; brownie bites; $5 wines. I thought the less than gourmet spread was admirable. Pass the cash saved on smoked salmon onto McCain, I say! Like the food, the headquarters aren’t exactly luxurious, but the inner sanctum seemed highly functional. The stream-lining, cost-cutting mind of a skilled capitalist was apparent, all profits going the Republican way.

Despite a spirited shouting of “McCain, McCain, McCain, McCain, McCain, McCain, MCCAAAAAAAAIN!!!” I thought there was more enthusiasm for Sarah Palin. I saw more pro-Palin T-shirts than McCain shirts; on the tables, her face was cleverly superimposed on Rosie the Riveter posters reading “We Can Do It!”; there was a woman selling dog tags with Palin’s picture; and McCain was rarely mentioned without also mentioning Sarah Palin.
Apart from the Alaskan Governor, people seemed enthused about the towering Tony Strickland. He gave a speech (it was alright…a bit too long…and he should have relaxed his clenched fists…but overall, acceptable) and garnered applause, cheers, and the like.

Unfortunately, I had to leave before the band started. Still, I was around long enough to confirm that both Santa Clarita's common folk and more recognizable public figures are supporting the GOP. Next time, I’ll skip the event and just send money.

Johnny Cash and Jesus

Considerably better-attended (several thousand for the night) was the annual “bar-b-q-fiesta” on the OLPH Church grounds. When I was little, thrill rides at the barbecue were limited to ponies and swing sets. Organizers later upgraded to Ferris Wheels and big slides, but now things are out of control. Everywhere I saw metal carriages and tracks colluding to invert, accelerate, and spin riders. As I passed them, I instinctively mumbled a Hail Mary for no multi-million dollar lawsuits.

In the middle of the parking lot, an enormous expanse of tent canopies and tables accommodated fiesta goers who came to eat. Each of the various Catholic ethnic groups (Italians, Mexicans, Filipinos…) had their own offerings (cannoli, tacos, lumpia…) along with the traditional barbecue beef. Alcohol, of course, was available in various forms and contributed to some overly generous bids on silent auction items.

As darkness (the natural, nighttime sort that wasn’t a metaphor for evil) enveloped OLPH, a Johnny Cash cover band played. Apart from Cash classics, they also played country favorites like “Redneck Woman.” The singer was pretty good and really, who doesn’t like hearing the words “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” at a religious function?

Folsom Prison Blues may contemplate sin and punishment, but more overtly religious lyrics came from the hip hop dance area the church provided for teens. As we passed it, the DJ played Ice Cube’s “You Can Do It”—the lightly censored version. To quote the uncensored version:

“So pray to the Lord that I don’t pull out/ Cuss out and bust out/ Go to nigga raveling/ Make the clip traveling, uh/ You can try to smoke an ounce to this/ While I pronounce this shit/ Baby bounce them tits/ Mama move them hips/ Baby shake them cheeks/ I got dick for days/ You got ass for weeks, yeah, yeah.”

See? They mention God in the first line. The less seemly language that follows could be easily sorted out with the help of a ruler-wielding nun.

In sum, the grand opening in the Industrial Center showed that Clarians are willing and able to organize and fundraise for the Republican Party. The SCV GOP has some (i.e., all) real local power-players on its side. At OLPH, we learned that a combination of country music, beer, food, line dancing, and kid-friendly carnival games benefiting a religious organization can still draw a crowd. Clearly, the conservative spirit remains alive and well in SCV. So let the rest of California drive their Priuses to protests of big business and planned parenthood fundraisers. We’ll be the red valley in the heart[6] of this blue state.

[1] http://scvtalk.com/2008/09/17/scv-residents-donate-to-obama-over-mccain-by-21/
[2]The story, as covered by The Signal, is here
[3]Alleged by me.
[4]Person who sees that those with sufficient money get their way in Santa Clarita
[5]Blog down
[6]Kidney region is probably more accurate

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Happenings: Delightful Events and Troubling Qs from Newhall

There’s a lot going on in Newhall this Saturday. Apart from the usual dealing of drugs, eating of Way Station breakfasts, playing of soccer, revitalizing of Old Town, tagging of walls, visiting of parks, selling of fruit from trucks, drinking of Doc’s Inn alcohol, admiring of murals, hawking of labor, installing of elaborate wrought-iron gates, feeding of Hart Park animals, mowing of lawns, attending of picnics, and receiving of special massages at as-yet-un-busted massage parlors, there will be several special events.

These events are detailed below for your weekend planning pleasure. If you get your timing right, you can go to all of them—I certainly plan to. Events are presented with a series of questions I hope to be able to answer by the weekend’s finish.

EVENT: River Rally & Environmental Expo (click for details!), 8am-11am, free
APPEAL: Watching Claritans attempt to interact with nature in positive way
BURNING QUESTION: Do POTR residences count as trash?

I walk in the Santa Clara River a lot. I’ve always felt that the tires and shopping carts give it a nice, lived in appearance. A few thousand people disagree with me, though, and they’ll be walking the dry riverbed to pick up trash on Saturday morning. (I will be the one fighting to keep it in place.)

Troublingly, I know of at least two POTRs (People Of The River—those who live, sleep and eat in the river wash) dwelling along the stretch of river targeted for cleansing. One of them has two tents and a kitchen table beneath a lovely cottonwood tree. What a fun confrontation it will be when the Girl Scouts and other community do-gooders meet the POTRs. “Hey, that’s not trash, it’s my home!”

This time of year, the river is rusty with the seedheads of California Buckwheat and golden with the flower of Scalebroom (more attractive than it sounds). Why not make things even prettier by picking up trash? The plants--gleaned from the Santa Clara a few days ago--from left to right, are Tree Tobacco (non-native), Butterweed, Scalebroom, and Common Sunflower.

EVENT: Hart Park Anniversary[1] and Excess Freight & Baggage Sale (click for information!), sale starts 8am
APPEAL: Being in a[2] historic place on a quasi-historic day and buying other people’s stuff which is probably old, perhaps historic
QUESTION: Can Leon Worden count?

This week we received the Newhall Gazette. I learned that (1)The William S. Hart Park and Museum will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its dedication on Saturday, (2)There will be an “Excess Freight & Baggage Sale” (i.e., garage sale) at the Saugus Train Station to help restore the Pardee House on the same day, and (3) Leon Worden may lack basic counting skills.

I didn’t get any sense of what manner of events will be commemorating the dedication of the Hart Mansion and property, but it’s a good excuse to visit. I haven’t been to the Hart Museum for nearly a year, so it’s high time for a refresher course.

As for the garage sale thing at the Saugus Train Station, I will go primarily in hopes of encountering a ghost. I will also look at the things for sale and judge the former owners for having bought said things. Pat Saletore was listed as a contact for this event; perhaps a certain purveyor of Daily Briefs could visit and discuss hauntings with her after their spirited (ha! a pun!) electronic exchange over a ghostly fundraiser.

After informing me about these two great events, the Newhall Gazzette led me to question Leon Worden’s counting skills. You see, he wrote “The City Council unanimously approved an ordinance to prohibit the demolition of more than sixty houses and ‘potentially historic’ structures in Santa Clarita.” While there was unanimous approval to send the ordinance to a second reading, only 3 of 5 CC members foolishly approved the final ordinance. This isn’t the first time L.W. has miscounted; he also claimed attendance of 25,000 at the Fourth of July Parade that was clearly attended by only about 7,000. He ought to be confronted with flashcards to determine his counting prowess once and for all.

EVENT: Frontier Days Bar-B-Q Fiesta at OLPH Church, 4pm – 11pm, free (pay for rides & games/food). Click here for more info (click on "Our Fiesta" at bottom of page)
APPEAL: Eating in carnival-like atmosphere while in shadow of salvation factory
QUESTION: Is gluttony a sin when it benefits the Church?

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church will have its annual barbecue this weekend. I’ve rarely missed a year. Despite being put on by a church, it has minimal religious overtones and is widely attended by the faithful and heathens alike. It’s most fun for those under 12 (games! silly string! churros!) or those over 60 (my old friends who haven’t died yet! margaritas! churros!). Still, I go to eat and people-watch and find it thoroughly enjoyable.

EVENT: Gawk at Madeover Street, any time, information on location/background here
APPEAL: Check out how the Extreme Neighborhood Makeover made Market Street look prettier!
QUESTION: You call this a makeover?

A portion of East Newhall will be the second neighborhood to endure a “Block Party” in the name of making the place more presentable and up-to-code. Since you’ll be in the neighborhood anyways, you should stop by to see how things are looking up…or looking the same.

[2]I refuse to do the "an historic" thing that everyone does now. It's thoroughly un-American. And it's immoral.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

OMG It's Nature: Walnut Ink, Locally Produced and Manufactured

I’m being used by a Southern California Black Walnut (Juglans californica[1]). I don’t particularly mind since I’m using the walnut tree, too. Our relationship is based on me taking its babies (i.e., seeds) and giving them a safe place to sprout—more on that later. In exchange, I get walnut husks full of juglone, rendered below.

Juglone, the molecule, in its oxidized form. Gray atoms are carbon, red are oxygen, and hydrogens aren't shown to make for a clearer picture. Making this made me miss chem class[2]. Don't you dare judge me!

Juglone is a rather useful chemical; walnuts manufacture it to kill their neighbors. Indeed, a host of plants from birches to chrysanthemums to tomatoes are sensitive to the juglone that may leach from walnut roots, leaves, or fruits. When planted beneath a walnut, these vulnerable species wither and waste away. There’s no need to share precious water and nutrients when a tree kills its neighbors. Reducing competition—it’s the wisdom of the walnut and the reason for juglone.

Us humans, however, have found many uses for juglone never anticipated by the tree that makes it. When it oxidizes, juglone turns a deep brown. Juglone based inks/dyes are permanent and lightfast, so they are great for hair dye and food coloring[3]. It was even used to embellish the margins of bibles when the good book was handwritten. And that’s what I use juglone for--ink.

Southern California Black Walnut, our local species, excretes less juglone than the walnut trees native to the eastern United States. However, the husks (the green, fleshy tissue that surrounds what is commonly called an unshelled walnut) do produce the chemical in fair concentrations. As proof, you’ll find that if you rip through the husk to reach the walnut inside, your hands will be stained brown for days. I find this a small price to pay for the end product, though. Here’s a summary of how I made said product:

(1) Gather walnuts—10 husks can produce a cup of ink. Juglans californica is listed as “uncommon” in the Jepson Manual (the California plant bible). The best place to find one is along the Santa Clara River or in canyons, anyplace the roots can tap groundwater. Once you’ve found the tree, expect walnut fruits in late summer. They’re peaking right about now. I usually gather the husks left on the ground after ravens and squirrels pillage the nuts inside.

These are ripe walnut fruits. The nut that lies within is small but edible.

(2) Find a metal pot to which you are thoroughly unattached, as you are about to ruin it. Juglone stains metal.

(3) Add the husks and a few rusty nails. The nails are really optional, but the iron they release will bind with tannins in the walnut husks to produce another, blacker compound that will darken the final product.[4]

(4) Barely cover with water. Bring to a boil, then simmer the walnut husk/rusty nail soup for about three to four hours. During this time, add additional water if necessary to keep contents from burning. The liquid will darken rapidly, but you need to boil it for a long time to get out plenty of color.


(5) Let cool. Boiling ink isn’t much fun to play with.

(6) Strain contents through a nylon stocking into a glass jar. You may want to reserve the boiled husks as they help future batches of ink get off to a good start.

(7) Feel slightly ashamed that you spent several hours making walnut ink, not widely regarded as a necessity to modern life.

(8) Use the ink to write, paint, stain wood, or dye textiles.

The pitchy brew shows as a nice sepia tone on paper. Since it was derived from a tree growing right here in SCV, you shouldn’t be surprised that the ink looks pretty but lacks depth.

WANTED: Walnuts

There’s an Indian riddle that asks: If acorns roll downhill, how can there be oaks growing on hilltops? The answer, of course, is squirrels, which are more than happy to run uphill to bury their acorns. They forget about a few of these cached treats and, voila, oak trees sprout on hilltops.

It’s a charming reminder that plants and animals have been helping each other out for a very long time. Plants help animals get food, animals help plants move around. People tend to exclude themselves from these relationships. Troublingly, this most natural of acts—give and take with a plant--feels distinctly unnatural to most with suburban sensibilities.

As I mentioned before, walnuts are somewhat rare in California. Development has reduced their numbers so that the Southern California Black Walnut is listed as a "4" by the California Native Plant Society: "Plants of Limited Distribution--A Watchlist"[5]. My favorite tree in Santa Clarita happens to be a lonely walnut growing in the field near Old Orchard Road and Hart High School. It’s in the uplands next to the Santa Clara river, a big stately tree that likely outdates the powerlines that run overhead. Birds and rodents eat most of the walnuts, and those that survive and sprout will be mowed down to reduce the risk of fire in the field where the parent tree stands. This is precisely the sort of situation where people can help a plant out and probably ought to help a plant out since we contributed to its predicament.

After gathering husks, I’ll take a few good walnut fruits too, ones still on the tree but with brown mottling on the green flesh. I soak them a few hours at room temperature, peel off the husks and add them to the ink pot (payment from the tree!). Then, I toss the walnuts in the fridge until February to simulate winter. I remove them, and the warmth triggers germination. The resultant seedlings can be given to friends with room for such a tree, and walnuts can spread again through our valley[6].

Maybe one day Santa Clarita will have a new riddle: If walnuts roll downhill, how can there be walnut trees on hilltops? And the answer, of course, will be Santa Claritans.

[1]Sometimes Julgans californica ssp. californica.
[2]Do you miss O-chem too? Draw some organic molecules yourself by clicking here!
[3]Here's the juglone Wikipedia entry
[4]This website gave me the rusty nail tip and a general sense of how to proceed; it also contains some goo d links if you are overcome with the urge to make ink
[6] If you know of any walnut trees, please alert me as I’d like to preserve a little more genetic diversity than that inherent in the handful of tress I know of. And if you’d like to grow a walnut tree, email me and I’ll be happy to refer you to a seed source. They'll hurt or kill certain plants growing beneath them, but there are many juglone-resistant species as well.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Happenings: Recuse-a-thon 2008, Old Houses, and Waterfowl

Tonight's City Council meeting proved considerably more watchable than expected. I credit most of this improved watchability to a man in a bird costume.

After an inspired invocation by Councilmember Laurene Weste, we had the usual spate of presentations to local groups[1]. While the Soroptimists and the Foundation for Children’s Dental Care took center stage, a yellow duck sat quietly in the front row. After an excruciating wait, the web-footed wonder arose, striding with quiet confidence to the front of the room. It was then introduced as a representative of the Rubber Ducky Regatta, an event benefiting the admirable work of the Sam Dixon Family Health Center[2]. Lacking opposable thumbs, it proved incapable of accepting the recognition plaque.

Duck in audience (left). Ender tries to force-feed duck in shameless appeal to foie gras sympathizers lurking in SCV’s finer eateries (right).

Public Participation came next. Conventional wisdom predicted comments on powerlines and perhaps some follow-ups concerning Benz Road. More comments, however, dealt with traffic on Canvas Street (if it’s not Benz it’s Canvas, right?). These were about as productive as they usually are. Nadine Teter, perennial Canvas speaker, was understandably exasperated at her street’s condition. She went on to request that Mayor Pro-Tem Ferry asnwer her Canvas-related emails like other members of Council do. Apparently, he's being unresponsive.

Nadine Teter wishes Frank would write her more. Get in line, hon!

The bulk of Claritan comments, though, concerned G&L Realty’s big ol’ building project[3]. Getting things off to a rip-roaring start was TimBen Boydston. He began his speech with an uncomfortable analogy between the injustices that prompted us to found the City of SC and those that sparked the Boston Tea Party. Gradually, his voice rose and passion deepened as he chastised the Council for dismissing the concerns of SCV citizens: “They are lectured, they are scolded, they are told that they just don’t understand.” It was a barnburner of the don't-forget-who-you-work-for-we-deserve-better sort and drew thunderous applause, relatively speaking.

Soon after, Lynn Vogel came forward and said “I’m here to speak about bias.” She wasn’t the only one. Many Claritans would take to the podium and ask Frank Ferry and Laurie Ender to recuse themselves from the G&L/HMNMH expansion issue. SmartGrowthSCV's attorneys put forth several arguments as to why Ferry and Ender would be unable to fairly deliberate on the Henry Mayo Master Plan. Speakers dropped quotations from Mayor Pro-Tem Ferry in which he said that he was unabashedly for the expansion project.

Ender did have a couple of people come forward on her side. A certain Sabrina claimed “Laurie Ender is one of the most trustworthy and honest people you will ever meet!” It was all an attempt to peddle the idea that the voters who elected Laurie into office weren't duped by flyers but voted for her after careful evaluation of all eligible candidates. When they voted for Ender, they knew they were voting for a pro-medical office buildings sort of gal.
After Public Participation, of course, the people sitting up front got to respond.

Carl Newton, City Attorney, spoke on the issue of Henry Mayo bias. He tried to clarify what sort of biases would force a councilmember to recuse him- or her-self from an issue. The "operative words" of his professional advice, he claimed, were that “a councilmember should not assume a firm position for or against a project” before all information is made available to the public and discussed. He reviewed the letter from SmartGrowthSCV’s attorneys and came to the conclusion that prior comments did not establish any councilmember as having taken a firm position for or against the HMNMH expansion “Certainly there are strong feelings [about the expansion]” but not enough to justify recusal. In short, Newton said that "strong feelings" and "firm positions" are quite different things, especially when it comes to hospitals. One wonders…

Ferry deigned to forgo answering the recusal demands. Ender, on the other hand, responded directly to her critics: “I have no intention of recusing myself on this issue.”
After councilmembers took their potty break, there was the Joint City Council/Redevelopment Agency business to attend to. Erin Moore-Lay delivered a presentation on “Acquisition and Rehabilitation of Hidaway Apartments.” Essentially, developer Mercy Housing California sought a loan of more than $2M to restore the apartment complex for use as affordable housing. (I dreamt of the regatta duck through much of Moore-Lay’s oh so very, very thorough presentation.)

When it came time for the public to weigh in, we learned why this wasn’t a universally beloved idea. A couple residents of Hidaway came forward and said they feared being uprooted so that their homes could be rented to other, poorer people. And they would indeed be kicked out if their income was too high to qualify for affordable housing. Based on a voluntary survey, only half of the current residents would be allowed to stay, paying estimated rents of $600-$1200. The others would be kicked out and given three-and-a-half years of housing subsidies to ease the transition.

Despite this downside, the Council decided to go ahead with the loan to Mercy Housing. Pushing councilmembers to take this action was the fact that Mercy Housing was asking for a loan--not the usual grant--to spiffy up the apartments and provide affordable housing. Also, the Hidaway property is in default, and a new owner could come in, raise the rent, and force everyone to leave. More cynically, giving the loan to Mercy represented a relatively painless way for the City to work towards meeting its affordable housing goals. More cynically yet, Cam Noltemeyer suggested this was a way of keeping low-income persons out of the way in Canyon Country.
The other big piece of business tonight concerned an ordinance for historic review on a number of properties. Two weeks ago, during the ordinance's first reading, almost all of the comments were gleeful: “Claritans love history and we want to preserve it, rah rah rah!” Tonight, the comments were rather the opposite.

Speakers warned about “overzealous preservationists” and a “malicious perversion of government power.” The list of properties that would face historic review was said to be deeply flawed. Many buildings were simply old, not historic, and their inclusion on the list belied shoddy research. Private property rights stood to be violated, many said, since the ordinance could limit what owners could do with their buildings. Cynthia Harris called it "a totally unfair ordinance.” The bespectacled Harris gazed intently at Mayor Kellar as she gave her comments, saying "Bob, you should know better.”
And ultimately, he did know better. Mayor Kellar noted that historic listing would be a discolsure that would lower property values or make a property harder to sell. After all, what buyer wants limits and reviews on what they can do with the structure they acquire? Mayor Pro-Tem Ferry agreed and did not want to unduly burden historic/pseudo-historic property owners.
Indeed, Cynthia Harris should have directed her "You should know better" quip at Weste, McLean, and Ender.
Before voting in favor, Councilmember McLean talked a lot about the ordinance, asking if the review process really imposed that much of a hardship. She somehow missed the fact that the annoying, burdensome review process was exactly the hardship property owners were objecting to. Paul Brotzman encouraged this dismissal of the burdens imposed on property owners. With a hyperbolized sense of urgency, he claimed that we are in an “all or nothing situation”, as if not approving the ordinance would result in a fleet of bulldozers leveling every home with a scrap of historic value.

Mayor Kellar suggested that the City could buy vulnerable properties that come onto the market if it really wanted to preserve them. His idea was ignored as the double X-chromosomed members of Council gave their yeses (or "aye" as the case may be) while the XY-chromosomed members said "no!" Whether the voting divide along gender lines was simple coincidence or something more is unclear. Regardless, homeowners of "historic" properties will now need to ask the City to review planned alterations or demolitions of their homes and buildings. Thanks to this ordinance, many old, ugly buildings will be spared the wrecking ball and preserved for us to endlessly marvel at.
A preemptive strike to have Ferry and Ender recuse themselves on the G&L expansion failed; it's out with the old, in with the new at Hidaway; and it's in with the old, out with the homeowner control at historic/pretend-historic buildings in Newhall.

[1]The agenda may be read here.
[2]To take place on October 18, details here.
[3]Pulskamp confirmed that this will be on the agenda at the next C.C. meeting, which will therefore stretch until 1am--if we're being optimistic.