Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Big Land Purchases, Bob Won't Debate Billboards

I don't think city council meetings leave much in the way of an impression on the scout troops that routinely  lead the pledge.[1] Tonight's cub scout troop wasn't too far from the usual: the leader instructed the kids that they were addressing Mayor Laurene "WEEST" ("I didn't know we had a girl mayor," one scout replied). Their time in city hall was spent saluting the flag, having their parents take pictures of them with a council they didn't know, and listening to some people get upset about billboards for three minutes at a time behind the microphone (they left shortly thereafter). City government must be bewildering with this as the only direct exposure the kids and their parents may ever get in their lives. And sadly, they missed the biggest events of the meeting--two purchases of land, one to hold as open space and the other to use for a Canyon Country community center. The purchases were popular. Indeed, it was a meeting of billboard discord and real estate harmony.

Mayor Weste began the meeting with an invocation on the topic of diversity. She said that "culture [is] a strong part of our lives," and she noted that many different groups would be in the spotlight this month, from Hispanics to Native Americans to Jews. But she was quick to point out, "We are all just human beings," and that we have much in common with one another. This was one of the more thought-provoking and informative invocations that I can recall.

Awards and recognitions went to some people for earning gold medals in an international (USA, Japan, Russia, Canada) karate tournament. They were actually called forward but, since some hadn't arrived yet, sent back to the audience, then invited back up again during public participation when the other couple of winners had finally arrived. Mayor Weste warned that if you enter the arena with any of these formidable folks, "You're in serious trouble." The Rubber Ducky Regatta event to benefit Samuel Dixon Family Health Centers was heralded next. As usual, someone in a large yellow duck costume came forward to accept the proclamation of Rubber Ducky Day. "You gotta love that duck," remarked Mayor Weste.

Public Participation

Apart from some words on mobile home park residents from Ray Henry, everyone during public participation spoke about billboards and Measure S, which would swap conventional billboards for new digital billboards along the 5 and the 14.

Speaking in favor of Measure S was Mark Hershey, who said new digital billboards would fund public safety personnel and equipment. Perhaps he doesn't know that others have already unofficially earmarked the anticipated proceeds to, variously, the senior center, buying out remaining billboards, city events and programs, more holiday light displays, and so on. B.J. Atkins didn't seem to know what B.J. Atkins wanted to say, and he rambled vaguely about Measure S, ultimately saying that people will like it. Finally, Glo Donnelly reminded us twice in the span of three minutes that she co-chaired city formation over a quarter of a century ago. She found time between these reminders to say that she supported the take-down of conventional billboards, and said the new digital billboards will only be seen by people on the freeways, whom she apparently doesn't mind forcing to look at them.

Speaking against Measure S were Steve Petzold, Patti Sulpizio, and Al Ferdman. Ferdman estimated $9M in start-up costs for the new digital billboards, and he asked when the city would actually see any share of net revenue flowing into the coffers. He also noted that he had invited Councilmember Bob Kellar, others local billboard advocates, and even individuals from Allvision to debate Measure S at a meeting of the Canyon Country Advisory Committee, but he had been rebuffed by all. What's up with that?, he asked, just not in those words. Sulpizio delivered a powerful rebuke to the council on the topic: "We will vote 'no' on Measure S because you didn't listen to us...because you never asked if we want digital lights in our bedrooms at night...because we know Santa Clarita can get a better deal." Petzold called Bob Kellar's/the City of Santa Clarita's association with the website YesMeasureS reckless and irresponsible, and he said a billboard advertising La Vida Gentlemen's Club would stay up in Santa Clarita even with the billboard swap deal. This was in response to a father who had earlier remarked that he didn't think such billboard content was appropriate and that he worried his children would see it and start asking troublesome questions.


City Manager Ken Striplin responded to some of the speakers. As is the custom, he told Ray Henry that he and staff are working to update and unify ordinances that govern mobile home parks, and that, contrary to Henry's claims, the City is not working against mobile home park residents. Striplin also mentioned that the City "unfortunately" lacks control over billboard content, like the gentlemen's club ad, because of the First Ammendment. Whether free speech was generally problematic or problematic only in this instance was unclear. 

The updates from council were dull and tedious with few exceptions. Councilmember Bob Kellar said he would make a presentation and field questions on the topic of Measure S, but he refused to enter into a debate. Why ever might that be? Later, Councilmember TimBen Boydston delivered one of the sassiest of backhanded compliments when he told Councilmember Danta Acosta, who spoke at a recent event, that he "wasn't sure" about Acosta's public speaking abilities, but was "proven wrong." That is, Boydston was pleasantly surprised that Acosta could handle himself behind a microphone.

Consent Calendar

The consent calendar included items to improve roads and an item to remove Arundo donax, a noxious invasive weed, from the Santa Clara River. But Item 6, which recommended a $75,000 contract for development of an Arts Master Plan, was the real point of contention. Councilmember Boydston wondered whether the plan proposal was too dismissive of ideas to build arts-supporting spaces like museums and performance centers. Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean was worried whether enough was being spent on the master plan. Indeed, the bid had come in at $94,000, but the budget was set at $75,000, which meant not everything in the initial proposal was guaranteed to make it to the final master plan. A considerable amount of time was spent debating this rather routine negotiation tactic. Arts Commissioners Shapiro and Millar came forward to say they thought it was important to give adequate funding for a complete plan. Mayor Weste said it didn't make sense to be "penny wise and pound foolish" by saving a little only to get an unsatisfactory master plan. These points were countered by the fact that the plan could be reviewed and revisited later, and additional funding could be put forward. In the end, the consent calendar items passed with the recommended actions.

New Business

Parks & Rec Director Rick Gould presented two big purchases to the council under new business. 114 acres adjoining the City's Rivendale Ranch property (Towsley Canyon) were proposed to be purchased with $1.8M in open space preservation district funds. This price is well below the $4.6M the owners listed the property for in 2008. Indeed, for a little over $15,000 an acre, the council voted to acquire the area. Gould helped sell the deal by calling it a "fabulous opportunity", and noting "I don't use the word fabulous very often.

Gould was enthusiastic about the next purchase as well--though he withheld the f-word. It was six-and-a-half acres near the intersection of Sierra Highway and Soledad Canyon Road. The property has some issues, but it's been a parcel many have wanted to purchase and develop, so the City wasn't doing too badly getting it for $4.7M. The land will be used to develop a community center for Canyon Country. Al Ferdman and Glo Donnelly were both quite pleased about the purchase when they have comments on this item. And like the purchase of the land in Towsley Canyon, this purchase was unanimously approved.

The meeting ended with Dorothy White giving a comment in the second round of public participation. She said, "I feel like we've been carpet bombed" regarding all the new traffic clogging roads near the new Albert Einstein Academy location. She said she knew there was little that could be done, however: "As I was researching this as an angry resident, I realized how tied your hands are." City Manager Ken Striplin said the school has taken some measures to try and improve the situation, but apprently these have proven unsatisfactory to White. With that, the meeting ended.

[1]Who's got an agenda? Why the City of SC, that's who. Agenda.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Buying Native for the SCV

A Stephanomeria native to Santa Clarita blooms in the September heat.

Should you replace your lawn with a landscape of plants native to Santa Clarita—or at least Southern California? For me, the answer is an unqualified yes, but that’s because I’m weird and do things like make ink out of the husks of our native walnut, fantasize about stumbling across the new species of sunflower discovered in the SCV, and rejoice in encounters with small indigenous annuals like claspingleaf wild cabbage. These days, though, it’s not just weirdoes like me who have reason to be thinking about our native flora.

With sustained talk of drought, wavering hopes for a strong El Nino, and water districts offering financial incentives to replace lawn with drought-tolerant plants, more people than usual are thinking about giving our local plants a spot in their yards. It’s not quite as easy as walking into a native plant nursery and picking out the pretty ones. “A plant is not a couch,” remarks California plant champion Judith Larner Lowry, reminding us that they’re living things with particular requirements, not mere elements of outdoor design. But it’s easier than ever to learn how to succeed with native plants. Resources abound online, and many excellent books are widely available

Where do you get started? Try immersing yourself in the world of gardening with California native plants starting this weekend. We are entering a season of native plant sales and festivals that coincides (almost) with the start of the rainy season, a time when many species break out of summer dormancy and start putting out new growth. It’s a good time to learn, browse, talk, buy, and dig in. Here’s a calendar of the events closest to Santa Clarita (most are about a half-hour away) with some advice on how to win at each. It all starts this Saturday, so hurry up at the Santa Clarita River clean-up and then head to Westwood to meet Carol Bornstein, a name you'll soon be knowing.
RSABG Grow Native Nursery in the Veterans Garden
Autumn Garden Party
Saturday, September 20, 10am-4pm, Westwood
The Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden is truly an institution--the largest botanic garden focused on California plants--and one of the few good things about Claremont. But who wants to drive all the way out there? Happily, they have a retail space in Westwood that offers beautifully-grown plants. The nursery is quite well organized, easy to navigate, and in a nice little nook a bit north of Wilshire. It's almost a plant boutique--interesting selection but not a ton of any one species--but the prices aren't bad.

Their Autumn Garden Party includes a talk about "Reimagining the California Lawn" by Carol Bornstein (10:30am this Saturday, the 20th), which I suspect just might be based on a recent book of the same name which she co-authored. It will be a timely, trendy talk. If you go, heckle her for not pushing natives only.

Matilija Nursery
Big Fall California Native Flower Arrangement Contest
Saturday, September 27, 10am-4pm, Moorpark

Is there anything more unusual or emasculating than a native flower arranging contest? Oh well, small price to pay for a chance at free plants or discounts from Matilija Nursery. It's out in the boonies and a mostly-one-man-operation that does an interesting side business in non-native irises, but I like it. They have wholesale quantities of many LA and Ventura County native plant staples, the species likely to be the foundation of your native landscape. Plants aren't "over-grown"--they're well rooted but might not have the most luxuriant top-growth--which can be unnerving, but the prices are the best around. It's really economical if you show up for a promotion or buy big sizes, like 5- and 15-gallon plants, which are almost always more pricey elsewhere.

Be sure to browse the inventory online and show up with a list of what you want. This will make Bob Sussman (the man behind Matilija) like you instantly. It really isn't a place where you can show up and browse rows of cute little 4" dudleyas of 18 species like you'd do at Grow Native or Theodore Payne. It's a native plant nursery that, once discovered, will make you feel like you're in the know and a serious buyer more than a dabbler. But I'm sure dabblers are welcome, too. 

Theodore Payne Foundation Nursery
Fall Plant Sale
October 10/11, 17/18, 8:30-4:30, Sun Valley

Theodore Payne is very well known and for good reason. It has a long legacy, a vast selection of plants and seeds, beautiful website, and is far more than just a plant shop. But it's not quite plant-shopping paradise. Parking is scarce, many plants can be gotten cheaper elsewhere ($12 for some chamise?), and it sells plants from a pretty broad swath of California, which can lead the uninitiated to make perilous purchases of things like western azalea (a plant of the Sierras) which are probably doomed to failure in the SCV. The clientele is a curious mix of native plant zealots and people walking around staring blankly before finally buying something simply because it happens to be in flower.
They have a great selection, and the plant tags are pretty informative so you can go to browse, but try to have a sense of what you want before you arrive, lest you be overwhelmed by too many options. And don't miss out on the plants grown from local LA County stock, a great way to support truly local biodiversity.

LA-Santa Monica Mountains CNPS Chapter
California Native Plant Sale
October 25/26, 10am-3pm, Encino
San Gabriel Mountains CNPS Chapter
Into the Garden: Native Plant Sale 2014
November 8, 9am-2pm, Pasadena

The California Native Plant Society's LA chapters have sales in the late fall. These things are really hit-and-miss, and it's best to attend knowing that you buying, at least in part, to benefit "the cause". Plants mostly come from commercial growers of California natives, so you might get things that are fairly common in the trade already. Some hardcore, horticulturally-leaning chapter members may have seeds for sale or have grown their own wonderful, obscure, truly local plants, and that's the real reason you go. The trouble is, you're fighting a highly educated group of buyers, so you must act decisively to get the best stuff.
Alternatively, you can attend to mingle and talk shop with other native plant fans, browse books, and relive your highs and lows from the 2014 season of native plant bargain hunting.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Worried Neighbors

Tonight’s City Council revealed a community anxious about its neighbors[1]. Residents of Castaic spoke out about the Chiquita Canyon Landfill Expansion planned for next door (figuratively). Residents of Happy Valley spoke out about the apparently thriving rehab facility operating next door (literally). With little of substance on the agenda, these concerns took center stage.

Councilmember TimBen Boydston delivered the invocation, recalling the events of 9/11 in his part-dramatic, part-prayerful, part-statesmanly style. He ended with a flourish of a call to the pledge, asking that we salute the flag of the greatest nation on earth.

As the city council reviewed the agenda prior to the meeting to identify items requiring further discussion, Boydston asked about the “car-free planning” related to Item 4, an update of the Santa Clarita Non-motorized Transportation Plan. He said that cars are important to Claritans because the area is “very rural, very spread out” and has “lots of hills” and high temperatures. He contrasted Santa Clarita with San Francisco, which he said would have an easier time of going car-free because of the high density and abundant public transportation. As Andrew Ye would clarify, cars are still welcome in Santa Clarita, but the City is trying to make other options available.

After this diversion, Mayor Weste could scarcely contain her excitement as she announced the City’s fourth time winning an award for excellence in procurement. Some people in Santa Clarita are just really good at buying stuff-whodathunk? Her excitement only grew as she invited Jackie McNally forward to be recognized for chairing the celebrity waiter auction which benefits the SCV Senior Center. The event raised over $90K for seniors. “All of us are going to be old one day,” said McNally as she took the mic. I don’t know if those words sunk in with our spry, youthful council, but here’s hoping.

Public Participation

Stephen Daniels got tonight’s public participation portion of the meeting off to a lively start. He went after Councilmember Bob Kellar for his stand on digital billboards and the people who oppose them. Daniels reminded the audience that Kellar had suggested that people who signed the petition against the digital billboard deal didn’t understand what they were supporting. Daniels turned Kellar’s argument on its head, suggesting that the people who voted for Bob Kellar (fewer than the number who signed the petition against billboards, incidentally) might not have understood who they were really voting into office. Per usual, Daniels’ words were aggressive and incisive, but the delivery was lackluster, diminishing the overall effect.

A few others spoke out on billboards—Al Ferdman, Steve Petzold—but most people had shown up to speak about a disruption in their Happy Valley neighborhood. As we heard at the last meeting, a sober-living facility (or rehab center or addiction treatment center or whatever it’s currently calling itself; the names and labels change frequently) has sprung up in a home in the quiet neighborhood. So long as there are fewer than six people receiving treatment, the City is essentially powerless to stop the business from operating in the residential area. One couple said the operation meant their dreams of a quiet retirement had gone up in smoke. Jeff Hacker, notorious local attorney, said the City needed to help fight the facility and said they were misrepresenting the true nature of their business, offering services which they are unlicensed to offer. One man actually went after Bob Kellar (it really wasn’t Bob’s night), the real estate agent who brokered the sale of the home from Duane Harte to the current owner, who is using it to help rehabilitate addicts. He asked how much Bob had profited from the transaction.

Reports and Responses

City Manager Ken Striplin was the first to respond to concerned Happy Valley residents. He said, “we have been doing as much as we can,” and reminded the council and audience that their hands were tied to some extent by rather accommodating laws. Nevertheless, he said they were performing inspections, checking out code violations, and monitoring activity at the house. It’s still waiting for a state license, but if the license comes through, there will be even less the City can do. Councilmember Bob Kellar confirmed that he had represented Duan Harte in the sale of his home, but he insisted there was absolutely no way he could have known what was coming. (None at all?) He continued, expressing that he, too, “would be just as livid” as Happy Valley residents are about the business in their residential neighborhood. Mayor Weste called it a “horrific assault on a neighborhood,” and Booydston said “it’s really about the money.” In short, everyone sympathized with the increase in neighborhood traffic and goings-on brought by the sober-living facility, but they agreed little could be done to oppose it.

After these responses, Happy Valley residents left, clearing out about two-thirds of the audience.

The councilmembers offered updates next. There was talk of water conservation and charity events and high-speed rail, but it was Mayor Weste’s tribute to a recently deceased young Claritan student that really stood out. Her voice wavering under emotional weight, Weste spoke about Jenny Stift, the beloved high school athlete who died when a car hit her while running. Weste said she had lived a lot in her seventeen years, but her death remained an unequivocal tragedy.

Consent Calendar

Nina Moskol, chair of the SCV Bicycle Coalition, was the first speaker to address the council during review of the consent calendar. She spoke on Item 4, which approved Santa Clarita’s transportation plan—at least the part not strictly focused on motor vehicles. She said bicyclists need to be accommodated and protected, and she gave some practical ways to achieve this goal, such as use of “sharrows” on intersection corners.

Next came several speakers in support of Item 5, a request for an extension on the review of the Chiquita Landfill expansion EIR. The landfill is in Castaic, but as the nearest neighbor and loyal customer, Santa Clarita has some influence in this realm—certainly more than Castaic residents seem to have themselves. One woman asked where we’d send our trash after Chiquita was filled to capacity from accepting waste from all over LA. At least two speakers complained of major health issues resulting from poor air quality near the landfill. The Santa Clarita City Council was sympathetic to their points, but they didn’t belabor the issue, letting the words of the residents stand on their own.

The consent calendar’s recommended actions were approved in their entirety by a unanimous vote. That meant the non-motorized transportation plan was accepted, a request for more time to review the Chiquita Landfill expansion will be sent, and the City would get a new mower for the Parks Division, among a few other items. As mentioned previously, it wasn’t a particularly substantial consent calendar.

There was no addition official business, but two more public speakers came forward. Larry Murray spoke on behalf of his daughter. He said she was the victim of apparently very serious domestic violence. Choking back tears, Murray said that the SCV Sheriff’s Department detectives had “not taken that seriously”, and had an “almost cavalier attitude.” He said repeated calls to Captain Johnson (who was sitting nearby) had gone unanswered. The council assured Murray some people would speak with him after the meeting. Finally, Evan Decker, a young Claritan history fanatic, called for support in saving the structures of historic Mentryville. He said that the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has done little to restore the mansion and other structures of the town. Decker has a gofundme page for the cause which has currently raised $425 of it’s $500,000 goal.

With that, the meeting ended.

[1]Here's the agenda--read it at your leisure