Wednesday, November 26, 2014

3% Rent Increases, 56% Billboard Rejection, 100% Senior Center Support

Tonight's City Council meeting stretched for a solid two hours, but so much went unsaid[1]. The hugely contentious billboard deal on the ballot mere weeks ago was already a non-issue. Apart from Councilmember TimBen Boydston, the Council acted like Measure S never even happened. Cam Noltemeyer made another plea for someone to say something, anything, about the Chiquita Canyon Landfill expansion, but her demands were met with silence. Frustrating the most people was a lack of meaningful discussion about mobile home ordinance updates. The room was full of families upset at the proposed 3% minimum annual rent increase, but a discussion is on hold until draft language is formally presented in January. The Council always has a lot to say, just not necessarily on the topics people want to hear about.

A Poem, A Message

Mayor Pro Tem Marsa McLean read a poem called "The Thanksgiving Ghost" for tonight's invocation. It is an elaboration of the humorous premise that a ghost ate the missing Thanksgiving leftovers, not people.  Here is the unattributed poem:

The last piece of apple pie is gone;/ How did it disappear?/ The bowl of delicious stuffing/ Has also vanished, I fear./ It happens each Thanksgiving,/ When leftover goodies flee,/ And each of us knows the responsible one/ Couldn't be you or me./ The only way it could happen/ Is readily diagnosed;/ It must be the crafty, incredibly sneaky,/ Still hungry Thanksgiving ghost."

The light-hearted rhymes did little to mask McLean's true, much more sinister message. Her not-so-subtle point made, the meeting continued.

Metro Love

There were just a couple of awards and recognitions tonight. The City recognized some deputies who had shown extraordinary bravery in a housefire, pulling a woman to safety.

Next, the City recognized LA Metro for doing, ostensibly, what LA Metro receives money to do--transportation stuff. Mayor Weste noted that Metro helped with the Newhall Roundabout, a project which has inexplicably won the 2014 Project of the Year from the Southern California Chapter of the American Public Works Association. It was a real love-fest between the City and Metro, perhaps an apology that the Council didn't manage to pass the billboard deal that would have given Metro a new revenue stream.

Undo the Rezones, 3% Floor Unacceptable

Public participation this evening could be cleanly split into two categories, billboards and mobile home parks.

Steve Petzold addressed the defeat of Measure S, which would have added digital billboards along Santa Clarita freeways in exchange for removing some billboards in town. He joked, "I'm gonna take out all the things I was going to say about Metro" in light of the presentation that had just been made. He promised, "I don't hold any ill will," and asked the City Council to reverse the zoning amendments that had been made to accommodate planned digital billboards. Many others echoed his entreaty, noting that fully 21,488 Claritans had voted against digital billboards. By most standards, that's a bunch.

The first speaker on the topic of mobile home park ordinance changes was Concepcion Hernandez. She stood up from the audience and asked that Doug Fraser speak on her behalf, so he did. Her proxy said that the City was proposing that rents at mobile home parks would increase every year with a 3% floor and a 6% ceiling. The 3% floor seemed unfair because cost of living doesn't always increase by that much each year, yet park owners would know they were guaranteed at least a 3% increase in revenue from rents each year. Another Parklane Estates mobile home park resident asked people in the audience to raise their hand if they were there to protest the proposed ordinance, and dozens of hands shot straight up. The room was packed, and opposition was abundant.

One exception to comments on billboards and mobile home parks was a statement by Roger Herring. He described how various stakeholders and the City had been working on a project to address environmental problems in the Bouquet Canyon watershed, outside of the city proper. He was dismayed that the City had backed out on a funding plan because of concerns about new labor regulations and requirements. It wasn't a very clear comment unless you were familiar with the issue, which nobody but the City's Environmental Services Division seemed to be.

Responses and Non-Responses

City Manager Ken Striplin responded to the concerns of mobile home residents by saying that a draft ordinance would be presented next year, likely in January. The ordinance has been undergoing revision in a public process, but he hinted that it was unlikely the 3% floor on annual rent increases would be revised down to 0%, as many hoped. He said they have been trying to balance the needs of residents and park owners, and he noted that the loss of redevelopment and low-income housing funds complicate this realm of problems. In short, expect big, complicated meetings about mobile home matters in 2015.

City Attorney Joe Montes spoke about the Bouquet Canyon watershed project. It was his understanding that the City, which would pass-through funds from a granting agency to tackle the project--had offered to work on a smaller amount so that new regulations could be avoided. More discussion will ensue.

In light of a strong public vote against digital billboards and comments asking that rezoning be addressed, Councilmember TimBen Boydston asked if the billboard ordinance of interest could be added to the agenda for the next meeting. He needed two members of the City Council to support him, but no one said a word. Indeed, a community that voted against digital billboards will continue to have areas spot-zoned to accommodate them for the foreseeable future.

Death Abounds

It's been a while since the last City Council meeting, so there was a lot of eulogizing to be done. Notable Claritans like Henry Schultz and Robert Newhall Chesebrough III recently passed away and were remembered. Perhaps most notable was Gladys Laney, who lived her whole life within just a few blocks of Santa Clarita, witnessing the transformation of dusty proto-Santa Clarita to the city we know today. Mayor Weste recalled visiting her at work when she turned 100.

Santa Clarita's Legislative Platform and Einstein Academy

The consent calendar was mostly a dull mix of traffic and construction matters. Item 2 was of interest because it formalized Santa Clarita's positions on legislative issues for 2015. These included points like support for creating St. Francis Dam National Memorial, opposition to unfunded state mandates, and so on. Federal and State topics were addressed ("Yet a giant landfill in Castaic is somehow too far out-of-bounds and far-removed to talk about?" some might hypothetically wonder). McLean asked that one item, which largely opposed high-speed rail, be amended to include support for other consumer rail projects.

There was a somewhat related discussion of lobbyists, which the City was proposing to continue employing for matters related to Cemex and the like. Boydston wondered at their efficacy, and Kellar assured him they were important and effective in furthering Santa Clarita's agenda on a variety of fronts.

Item 8 formally denied the request of Albert Einstein Academy (AEA) to build and operate an elementary school at an office building in an industrial park. Alan Ferdman thought it was unfair that the school was being denied for not meeting standards that weren't actually in the code, so he supported the project. Mayor Pro Tem McLean, too, was supportive, asking for this item to undergo a separate vote so she could express her support. Ultimately, though, the consent calendar exclusive of Item 8 was approved with the recommended actions, and Item 8 received 3 yes votes (Acosta, Boydston, Kellar), 1 no vote (McLean) and 1 abstention (Weste).

Just before the vote, Mayor Weste spoke to explain why she had abstained last time on the AEA vote. She claimed she "never abstains," but was sympathetic to AEA because there hadn't been an appropriate solution or alternative to the project identified. She couldn't vote to satisfy all parties, so she had chosen not to vote at all. It was an odd mix of reasoning--part protest, part frustration, part symbolic--but it didn't exactly scream "leadership" as one might hope for from their mayor. She instructed staff to determine where schools can reasonably go if they disrupt neighborhoods, aren't compatible with industrial/business parks, and can't buy out whole shopping centers. It's a fair question, but probably answered better by policy than a technical solution to be uncovered by staff.

Senior Center Funded

Santa Clarita has a large population of senior citizens, and after LA County agreed to pony up over $3M to find, acquire, and build a new SCV Senior Center, the City voted to match it with $3M of its own. Councilmember Kellar explained more funds would be needed, but this was an adequate start. The approval was very popular with everyone in the audience and on the Council. Councilmember Boydston observed that it had made unlikely allies of Berta Gonzalez-Harper and Alan Ferdman, for instance. Mayor Weste said she was "very proud to see this day."

Closing Remarks

Those for whom there hadn't been time during the first bout of public participation were given a chance to speak at the end of the meeting. Cam Noltemeyer said the Council's refusal to discuss Measure S related zoning changes "shows your contempt for the community." She continued by demanding that Mayor Weste make a statement about the Chiquita Canyon Landfill expansion, but was left unsatisfied.

Patti Sulpizio also expressed her deep disappointment at the lack of discussion about the remains of the billboard ordinance in the wak of Measure S's defeat. She then made a play at embarrassing the City Council by passing out copies of their norms--highlighted, no less--and asking that they abide by their own rules of conduct. She was particularly upset that no one had spoken up when Rick Green was very rude to Cam Noltemeyer in a highly personal comment from the previous meeting. Sulpizio then read a letter from David Barlavi, a leader of the campaign against Measure S. It was rather witty, asking that the City stop attracting "vulture-like" enterprises (Allvision, the red light camera operators, Cemex, etc.) to the valley.

There were many speaker cards that went unclaimed as most of the mobile home park residents had left by this point in the meeting. One woman remained to say "this is abominable" in response to a 3% floor on annual rent increases. Her mother, she explained, is on a fixed Social Security income increasing only 1% per year, so she wouldn't be able to keep up. The meeting ended with this and other matters unresolved.

[1]Here's the agenda, especially for you.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Eating Santa Clarita: Purple Sage for Thanksgiving

The first Thanksgiving feast was more foraged than farmed. Sure, Pilgrims and the Wampanoag grew corn, but deer, fowl, fish, and other foods came from the wild. Foraging then was a matter of necessity. Today, foraging is a means of giving the Thanksgiving feast a truly local flavor. It’s an opportunity to consider what the wilderness provides—to connect with nature at the fundamental level as a gatherer. More practically, foraging is a pleasant reason for a hike or a task to assign those whom you wish to go take a hike.

I am planning to harvest and taste a few native foods as we approach the big feast. Some will be novel, but we begin with a local species of sage, that most quintessentially Thanksgiving of herbs. It makes for a warmly welcoming introduction to eating Santa Clarita’s indigenous flora.

Meet Your Food

Sage adds an ineffable roundness to the turkey and stuffing at the center of Thanksgiving; dinner wouldn’t be the same without it. A few species of sage are indigenous to Santa Clarita, and of these, purple sage (Salvia leucophylla) is the choicest for culinary applications. It's related to the familiar culinary sage (Salvia officinalis), which hails from Europe. However, purple sage grows almost exclusively in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties—a plant of discriminating zip codes, to be sure. Since it’s rarely sold in nurseries (the “purple sage” you see for sale is usually the same name applied to a very different species), you’re one of a tiny percentage of people who can feasibly incorporate this flavorful plant into your meal.

Are you leery of consuming leaves off a bush growing in the middle of nowhere? Take some solace in the fact that California's various sages have a long legacy of use by several Native American tribes. In Edible and Useful Plants of California, Charlotte Clark writes that the native black sage “was used by early settlers to season sausage, poultry, and meat stuffings.”(111) Purple sage makes an appearance in Judith Larner Lowry’s recently published book California Foraging, where she writes, “The leaves have a future in edgy cuisines, since they are attractive and tasty when lightly fried to garnish pasta or eat as appetizers. The hint of bitterness will please those interested in re-introducing such complex tastes to their palate.”(82) If you’re still nervous, remember that you’re only using a little bit of it as a seasoning and, more importantly, you can confirm it’s sage with the sniff test—an unmistakably sagey aroma.

Recognizing and Harvesting

 Note the unique, pebbly texture and silvery/gray/white leaves of purple sage.

Purple sage is a woody shrub with small, elongate leaves with blunt edges. They are a beautiful silvery gray and have an uneven, pebbly surface texture. Don’t expect any purple on the plant this time of year; pale purple flowers come in spring. The strong, sagey smell is evident when leaves are brushed or bruised. It’s a plant of lean soils and steep hillsides. Good places to find it are the hills forming the southern flank of the Santa Clarita Valley. There are many popular hiking spots here, as you’re likely aware. If you want to be sure you know what it looks like, take a look at the photos below. To get to this particular plant for the purposes of identity confirmation, park at the City of Santa Clarita’s East Walker Ranch parking lot. From the map kiosk, walk 20 paces down the trail and there, within a tangle of green, is silvery purple sage. Dozens of other purple sage plants dot the hillside. 

East Walker Ranch is full of purple sage, like most of the hilly areas in the southern Santa Clarita Valley. Here's one that's just yards from the start of the trail if you want to verify what it looks like before gathering your own.

You should only gather purple sage on a property where you have permission. It’s not endangered or threatened by any means, but it’s still not something you can legally collect at, say, Placerita Canyon State Park. I wouldn’t be unduly concerned about the impact you’ll have on the wild populations of purple sage by pinching a few leaves, though. It’s locally very common and a robust plant that can withstand quite a lot. On a more philosophical note, I think we’re more apt to notice troubling declines in plants like purple sage if we identify and responsibly monitor or use them. Plants may well be more susceptible to demise from disinterest than from occasional, responsible harvesting.

Eating Purple Sage: A Test with Chicken  

To use purple sage fresh, just rinse off the leaves. If you want to use it dried (the way culinary sage is often sold), leave stems in a paper bag in a cool, dry spot to discourage mold. Wait a couple weeks. Then strip the leaves and crumble them for use.

Since sage is often used with poultry, I decided to taste it with chicken. I seasoned a small piece of chicken breast with a mixture similar to what you might use when roasting a turkey, keeping sage as the sole herbal component: 1 teaspoon melted butter, ¼ teaspoon lemon juice, 1/8 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper, and 2 purple sage leaves, very finely chopped. For a comparison, I made the same marinade with culinary sage leaves as well. After the chicken marinated for 15 minutes, I cooked it in a skillet.

 The purple sage in this photo looks a little more green than usual because it came from a watered plant, which leads to greener (vs. grayer) leaves. The culinary sage is of the favored 'Berggarten' variety.

Purple sage gave a savory, woodsy flavor with sweetly floral elements somewhat reminiscent of lavender. Culinary sage made the chicken taste rich and round and contributed a sweet-bitter flavor like pine or rosemary. Both were unmistakably “sagey”, but side by side, differences were evident. Given my deep Claritan roots, I was hoping I’d like the native sage better. However, centuries of selective breeding of culinary sage have produced a familiar, tasty plant. I probably would have given it a slight edge over purple in a blind taste test. For this, I am ashamed.

The Verdict

Sage is probably the most accessible way to add a wild-foraged element to your Thanksgiving meal. The flavor of purple sage isn’t so different from culinary sage, so it will be a nice blend of novelty and familiarity at the table. It can make an appearance in turkey, stuffing, or flash-fried for a crispy garnish. It won’t taste exactly the same as culinary sage, but you’ll get most of the flavor you’re wanting and expecting. Purple sage's novelty and Claritan credentials will surely make up the difference. Just think of how you will regale family and friends with the story of how you hiked, searched, and triumphed in your quest to bring a wild-foraged piece of Santa Clarita to the feast. Why wouldn't you?

My next culinary trial will be California Bay, friend to pumpkin and potatoes.