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Angeles Groups Rally Thousands to Save Verdugos
By Li Miao

In 1997, Fred Dong wondered if he would ever be able to take his baby daughter into the forests of oak and bay laurel in the Verdugo Mountains. A housing development of 572 homes, the Oakmont View project, had been proposed in an oasis of wooded canyons and chaparral slopes just 15 minutes by car from downtown Los Angeles.

But after six years of fighting, Dong, fellow Sierra Club members, and other allies have saved the Verdugo Mountains from this development and convinced the city of Glendale to purchase most of the area as open space.

By the time the Glendale City Council voted to buy the land in December, 2002, opposition had grown to thousands of residents, mostly through the organizing efforts of two groups in the Sierra Club's Angeles Chapter and other local organizations like the Glendale-Crescenta VOICE. "We were able to cobble together an alliance even though there was initially some distrust," said Dong, who chairs the Crescenta Valley Group. "In the end we saw that if we banded together we could prevail."

Beginning in 1997, the Sierra Club organized hikes to the Oakmont land, educated citizens about the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) process, and rallied members to attend public hearings and write letters. Public EIR hearings in 2000 and 2001 and the city council voting session last March drew 800 to 1,000 attendees per meeting opposed to the project. "What started off with a few people who were really determined grew into a huge movement," said Mary Star, program chair of the Crescenta Valley Group.

According to Delphine Trowbridge, chair of the Verdugo Hills Group, one of the biggest challenges was trying to understand the intricacies of the EIR. "But Fred knew every inch of it, tore it all apart, and had all the arguments," she said. Trowbridge also credited Dong with initially mobilizing Sierra Club activism in the campaign.

The Oakmont project would have destroyed 2,300 mature trees and habitat for hawks, owls, rabbits, coyote, deer, bobcats, and the federally listed San Diego horned lizard. Development plans involved the leveling of ridgetops, filling of canyons, and the burial of a stream under a hundred feet of earth.

The project would have resulted in more traffic, school crowding, noise, and dust from at least 12 years of construction. The revised EIR, from July 2001, estimated 6,378 more auto trips a day, adding to the traffic congestion besieging the surrounding communities of Burbank, Glendale, and Los Angeles.

"People have to know they've got something to lose," said Star, noting that many project opponents were concerned about urban sprawl.

The Oakmont development became a hot-button issue in Glendale politics. "We started a groundswell to get city council people in office who were anti-development," recalled Dong. Beginning in 1999, the Sierra Club endorsed candidates who supported preserving the Oakmont land.

The development "became a lightning rod," in a community that had been pro-development in the 1980s, Dong said. "In the mid-90s, quality of life started surfacing as an important issue."

The vocal opposition of hundreds attending the first public hearing in 2000 forced the developer, Gregg's Artistic Homes, Inc., to draft a new EIR. The following year, a thousand people packed the Glendale Civic Auditorium, providing seven hours of testimony in response to the revised EIR. Each time, the developer filed a lawsuit over the EIR process. "The developer wanted to make sure the stakes were high," said Dong. "But when they raised the stakes, it brought out more opponents."

The Glendale City Council voted to kill the project in March 2002, in a record 11-hour session. Among the 800 project opponents who showed up, "the mood was somewhat celebratory," recalled Dong. By 5a.m., the five council members had unanimously voted against the Oakmont Project.

After a third lawsuit, the case was assigned to mediation, and the developer finally agreed to sell the Oakmont land for $25.25 million. The city provided more than half of the funds for purchasing the land, with state recreation and park agencies-aided by state senators and assemblymembers-supplying the other half.

On December 10, the city of Glendale acquired 238 additional acres of the Verdugos, which Dong described as an "urban wilderness island surrounded by cities." The city has preserved about 80 percent of its portion of the Verdugo Mountains as open space.

The campaign's success resulted from a combination of factors, including growth-weary residents, a concerned council of homeowners' associations, a coalition of conservation-minded citizens, and changes in political leadership.

But ongoing publicity and consistent leadership were critical, said Star. "The Sierra Club provided resources, knowledge, and a membership base. We worked hand in hand with VOICE and other groups to stimulate political and media interest in the issue. We encouraged letters to the editor, circulated petitions, gave out bumper stickers and yard signs."

A movement of concerned residents helped to change the development climate in this Southern California community. "There were enough folks that wanted this sort of change," Dong said. "We succeeded just by being able to reach them and channel that energy."

In February, Dong took his daughter Madeline, now six, into an oak canyon in the Verdugos where the winter rains promise blooms of monkey flower and California poppy. This year, spring is coming a little earlier.

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