City Council Agrees to Buy Elephant Hill from Developer and Preserve It As Open Space

11_4_09_elephant.jpgOpen space not condos for Elephant Hill.
Image: L.A. Eastsider

Yesterday, a twenty-five year battle between the Los Angeles City Council and the development group Monterey Hills Investors may have reached the end of the road. The Council agreed to pay a settlement of $9 million for the land known as Elephant Hill. Instead of housing a 24-home subdivision as MHI planned, this twenty acres of green hillside in El Sereno will be preserved as open space.

At issue was the quality of the environmental documents for the project, that were consistently opposed by residents, environmental groups and city leaders. When the project was first proposed in 1984, it was a 13-acre project. As time passed, the project continued to grow to its current 24-acre size. The complaints against the project alleged that the developer's plan to strip existing ridges down to bedrock followed by extensive fill would endanger both the El Sereno community and workers constructing the site. The ridges rest on seemingly unstable geography and an underground stream. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that in 2006, workers installing fencing on Elephant Hill created a large sinkhole. In 2005, a worker was buried in a hillside slide in El Sereno.

For those opposed to the Elephant Hill Development the settlement is a clear victory for the city's efforts to preserve this land as open space. The settlement comes after the Council voted in August of 2008 to require the developers to undergo an extensive environmental review, despite advice from the City Attorney that they did not have the power to do that. In January of this year a judge agreed with the developers that the Council over-stepped its powers.   The developers counter-sued the city alleging that the lawsuit caused a delay which caused MHI to lose $8 million dollars while the city appealed the decision.

All of that may have come to an end yesterday.  While an attorney for MHI notes that the agreement wasn't finalized,  yesterday's decision by the Council was hailed as a victory by all opposing the development and fighting for their community and open space.

Elva Yanez, the Elephant Hill Campaign Coordinator, released a statement hailing the settlement.  Via the Latino Urban Forum:

This is a huge victory for the residents of El Sereno and the coalition of community and environmental organizations that waged a long and hard fought struggle. We extend our heartfelt gratitude to Councilmember Jose Huizar for his steadfast leadership as he championing residents' public safety and environmental concerns related to this development.

The residents of El Sereno have been afforded the environmental protections that are rightfully theirs. We are thrilled that this poorly planned project is not moving forward and environmental justice has prevailed!

Environmental Justice was also a theme of a quote by local Councilman Jose Huizar that appeared in today's Times. Meanwhile, the NRDC senior attorney David Pettit praised the El Sereno Community for their role in this long-coming victory:

Collective efforts of residents, community-based organizations and elected officials to protect public safety and require developer accountability succeeded in preserving one of LA's few remaining open spaces benefiting public health and the environment for years to come.

While it's a good day for El Sereno and supporters of Open Space, I can't help but note that it's a good thing that Monterey Hills Investment didn't have a Governor and Legislature in its back pocket.