The Canyonback Gate

In July 2004, the City of Los Angeles issued a revocable permit authorizing the Crown Homeowners Association (“Crown HOA”) to construct a gate that would restrict public access on Canyonback Road.  Canyonback Road is both an access point to and a portion of a public parkland trail within the Westridge-Canyon Back Wilderness Park. 

The Crown HOA was given permission by the City to prohibit public access from dawn-to-dusk and, during daylight hours, members of the public seeking access to the trail would have to beg permission from a remotely-located gatekeeper, employed by and therefore beholden to the HOA not the public. The dawn-to-dusk time restrictions would prevent trails users from enjoying the trail loop that connects Westridge and Canyonback Ridge, which offers many scenic views.  The time limits would also strand trail users who have historically enjoyed the trails at night and during the pre-dawn hours.  Public use of the public parkland trails would be further impaired by the plan to screen all prospective public trail users by forcing them to request access by phone from a remote gatekeeper with video surveillance.

The plan to privatize and gate the Canyonback Trail/Road generated wide-spread public opposition.  On August 3, 2004, the Los Angeles Times Editorial, titled “Gates Make Bad Neighbors,” criticized Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski’s support for this Gate. Letters opposing the City’s plan to restrict public access were sent by State Attorney General Bill Lockyer, Mike Chrisman, California Secretary for Resources, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, State Senator Sheila Kuehl, State Assemblyman Paul Koretz, numerous community groups and organizations, and over 175 individuals.

On August 23, 2004, the City Attorney’s Office put a halt to the tremendously unpopular Canyonback Gate.  But now, the City Attorney has quietly decided to let the Canyonback Gate construction proceed.  While the gates may not be installed yet, the electrical, landscaping and aesthetic work may be completed.  By allowing this work to proceed, the April 8, 2005 letter implies that it is just a matter of time before the gates are hung and locked.  Why else would the City allow construction to proceed after the six month hiatus?

The April 8 letter raises this question:  What has changed between October 27, 2004 and April 8, 2005?

What public benefit would be conferred by the Canyonback Gate?  None.  The Crown HOA’s Application for Street Vacation indicates that it is necessary for security.  But the Crown has never provided any data to support the notion that gating is needed for security purposes.  And in August 2002, when LAPD Senior Lead Officer for the area Dennis Hinman spoke to the Crown’s Neighborhood Watch group, he informed the group that “Mountaingate is almost void of crime.  There were only four reported incidents from August 2001 to August 2003 and two or three of the incidents were questionable.

On July 6, 2004, Gary Morris, the Crown’s lobbyist, and Richard Zien, a Crown Board member, appeared at a Brentwood Community Council meeting.  When questioned about the need for privatizing and gating the remote public street, Mr. Morris stated that a gate was needed to deter crime, specifying that “drug dealing,” arson and other types of felonious conduct have plagued the Crown community due to unrestricted public entry through Canyonback Road.

When the audience responded with audible skepticism, Mr. Zien candidly admitted that crime was not an issue for Crown residents.  The real problem was traffic related.  According to Mr. Zien, commuters taking Sepulveda Boulevard to the Valley mistake Mountaingate Drive as a short-cut to the Valley.  These alleged would-be short-cut drivers must then make U-turns at the end of Canyonback Road.  Mr. Zien, however, was not able to say why a simple “No Outlet” sign would not solve the problem.

Another Mountaingate resident, who is a member of the community’s association responsible for the area’s private security patrols and was therefore privy to information about the crime reports, flatly contradicted the notion that there is any crime or security problem in the area: “The facts and records do not support any such criminal activity.  There are no police reports of any such incidents . . . there is no crime.  No felony has ever been reported to the police.”

We filed a Public Records Act request with the LAPD, seeking documents concerning crime reports for Canyonback Road. The LAPD responded that state law precludes it from producing documents except for crime reports during the six months prior to the request.  The LAPD received no reports of any crime occurring on Canyonback Road during that six month period. 

Finally, the Crown’s complaints about cut-through traffic have never been supported by any data, and is inherently incredible.  First, DOT measured the street’s traffic flows at 24 vehicles during the peak morning hour and only about 20 vehicles during the evening peak hour.  And the road is abnormally wide – sixty feet across – because it was originally designed as a scenic highway providing access to a massive hillside development that was never built.  By any standard, the Canyonback Road traffic data falls far short of a serious cut-through traffic problem.

The real motivation for privatizing and gating Canyonback Road has always been to increase property values.  The HOA has consistently sold its members on the gating proposal based on the advice of real estate advisors who “have told us that with privatization closure and gating of our street, all of our property values will increase by a minimum of 10-15%.”

The anticipated increase in property values cannot arise from any purported enhancement of security on Canyonback Road given the absence of any existing crime problem.  (Security, however, is not a viable justification for community gating even in areas that have established crime problems because the empirical data fails to demonstrate a significant impact on crime.)  What the Canyonback Gate and other community gates are successful at doing is restricting access to those considered “different.”  Property values rise due to the enhanced social and economic status conferred on community gatekeepers who have the power to let the "good" people in behind the gates, while keeping out "bad" people.  Gates make it easy to distinguish “good” from “bad” based solely on immutable racial or ethnic characteristics, thereby promoting discrimination.  Community gating thereby raises concerns that City permitting of gated enclaves may enable the same type of insidious discrimination once promoted by judicial enforcement of racial covenants.

Now is the time for the City to assume responsibility to protect public access to public parkland.  The Crown should be required to remove the Canyonback Gate structure from the public street immediately.  The pillars now standing send a message that the Canyonback Trail is not for public recreational use.  The structure inhibits public use of the parklands bought with public funds.  This type of “fake” security structure misleadingly implies that the Canyonback Trail is a “private enclave.” It sends a foreboding “Do Not Enter” message that has no place on a public parkland trail.

COUNCILMAN BILL ROSENDAHL: “GOODBYE CANYONBACK GATE!”
Promise Made.  Promise Kept!

October 19, 2005.  Councilman Bill Rosendahl made an important campaign promise while running for City Council.  He promised to Save Canyonback Trail from efforts to restrict public access or otherwise intimidate members of the public from enjoying the historic trail, which is a major Gateway to the Big Wild series of public trails throughout the Santa Monica Mountains.  On October 19, 2005, Councilman Rosendahl came through on his promise by announcing a specific plan of action for the removal of the imposing Canyonback Gate Structure.  In doing so, he emphasized that “My position remains firm and unchanged.  Public access must be preserved, and the gate facade must be removed.”

Councilman Rosendahl’s Oct. 19, 2005 letter:

During my campaign for City Council earlier this year, I took a strong and definitive stand in favor of protecting and preserving the right of public access to Canyonback Road.  I stood in unequivocal opposition to the gating of that road, and called for the removal of gate structures that implied the road was private and access was restricted.

 Since taking office, my staff and I have heard from all parties concerned and reviewed the issue thoroughly.  My position remains firm and unchanged.  Public access must be preserved, and the gate facade must be removed.

 To make good on my campaign commitment to public access, I am taking the following immediate steps: 

    Requesting immediate posting of prominent signage at the intersection of Canyonback Road and Mountaingate Drive directing the public to the Westridge Canyonback Wilderness Park trailhead at the north end of Canyonback Road

 •   Supporting the City of Los Angeles Planning Department staff recommendation to deny the application of the Crown HOA to downgrade Canyonback Road from collector to local street status. 

    Encouraging the Department of Public Works to promptly issue a ruling of final determination, opposing vacation of Canyonback Road.

    Urging the relevant city agencies to rescind the revocable permit for the existing gate structure and direct that it be promptly removed.

As I wrote in January, “it would be unjust to block or impede public access to that refuge. A gate and a security guard at Canyonback will surely intimidate visitors and effectively deny many their right to access a shared public space. I join with Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Association, Brentwood Hills Homeowners Association, Citizens for a Safe Sepulveda, Center for Law in the Public Interest, International Mountain Bicycling Association, LA Leggers, Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, Mandeville Canyon Association, Sierra Club Santa Monica Mountains Task Force, Trail Runners Club and Upper Mandeville Canyon Association in opposing the gate.”

Regards,

BILL ROSENDAHL
Councilman, 11th District