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Big Tujunga Development Raises Concerns for Residents

Big Tujunga Road runs parallel to Big Tujunga Wash | Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr/Creative Commons

Set on the foothills of San Gabriel Mountains, Sunland-Tujunga is a community that has seemed to escape the hurly burly of Los Angeles city life, while still being part of the city.

Known best as the location for Steven Spielberg's alien-meets-human blockbuster, E.T., the community has had a long history, stretching back to its time as a Tataviam village, a restorative retreat for those affected by asthma and tuberculosis, and now, one of the few spots in Los Angeles to host equestrian communities and the gateway to the Angeles National Forest.

"[Sunland Tujunga] isn't like other communities in Los Angeles. You can't just hop on a freeway, we're landlocked here. It's a bedroom community," said Cindy Cleghorn of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council (STNC).

The community is now contemplating a new proposal by Calabasas-based developer Ben Salisbury to build 242 single-family homes with about 2,400 to 2,800-square feet of living space, three private parks, and other amenities on a 78-acre site between the Big Tujunga Wash to the west and the San Gabriel Mountain foothills to the east. "A project like this isn't welcome because of all the impact a development like this would cause," said Cleghorn.

Understandably, the community is wary of such a development, especially given the site's history. "When [Councilwoman] Wendy Gruel was here, she realized the value of the area and she downgraded the area's zoning designation, so that if it was ever developed, it would be low-impact," said Mark Seigel, president of STNC.

Now, the developer is looking to change the land's zoning from minimum residential to low-density residential, which would enable it to build the 200+ homes it envisions.

The community's major concerns are the preservation of its way of life, as well as its effects on the area's rich biodiversity.

During a community meeting held last August, Sunland-Tujunga residents painted a picture of the development area. Gail Carlson, the neighborhood council representative for the impacted area says that there are only two ways to access the proposed development site (and also make one's way into the Angeles National Forest) -- through Oro Vista Avenue and Mount Gleason Avenue at the foothill of the mountain. Both streets have multiple stop signs, are relatively small and winding. The roads are dotted with churches, two schools, and 90-degree left turns. Any construction would be challenged to do their work in such tight confines.

More importantly, the area harbors many rare and endangered species. "All the time, we're learning more and more about the different environmental sensivities of the neighborhood," said Cleghorn. "There's the Santa Ana Sucker, different birds, toads, plants. We're finding them more and more and we didn't' know about them ten years ago."

Project site adjacent to Big Tujunga Wash | Image: Los Angeles Department of City Planning
Project site adjacent to Big Tujunga Wash | Image: Los Angeles Department of City Planning

Though Biologist Daniel Cooper of Cooper Ecological Monitoring hasn't done a deep study of the project and its impacts, he said there is reason to be cautious when it comes to development. "The whole Big Tujunga Wash is really important for a huge variety of wildlife. It's the only major undeveloped tributary of the Los Angeles River and it is one of the few areas in Los Angeles that still has a lot of open space in lowland areas."

Cooper explains that lowland open space is significant because the species make-up for every territory changes as you climb ever 1,000 feet. "That's the reason why the zero to 1,000 feet species are so rare -- because that's where development usually happens."

"The other issue is that this isn't a development where you're taking already developed land and demolishing it. It's raw land," said Cooper. These types of development on the edge of open space can be problematic for wildlife because these are the vehicles invasive species use when pursuing new territory. Cooper gives the example of the invasive Eastern Fox Squirrel versus the native Western Gray Squirrel. A study Cooper is about to publish shows that the Fox Squirrel is overrunning the Gray Squirrel in areas of new development that bring houses and backyards into the picture. "Multiply that by 500 and you get an idea of what development can do."

The developer is taking a wait and see stance. Brad Rosenheim, a representative for the developer, responded during the community meeting: "We're viewing this as the beginning of the process. Hopefully work with the community in a collaborative, transparent spirit. We hope though this process, working together we can craft a project that will evolve to what we're submitting to something community will be proud of." The developer it seems is gearing up for years of negotiations with the community, if need be.

But the community may not be up for it. Already, a "Stop Canyon Park Development" Facebook group and online newsletter has blossomed. Liliana Sanchez, a resident living right on the road of the proposed development and a member of Save Big Tujunga Canyon, warns, "Once this valuable land is gone, once you start building, it can never return."

Though the community may sound adverse to development, they say they're really looking for more tempered solutions. "We need middle of the road housing for people to buy. We're not saying you can't build, but build what you're allowed to build. Maybe it's just 22 homes, but they'll be beautiful homes," said Cleghorn, "The problem is when developers want higher density because they need to make money."

Another scoping meeting will be held on January 15, 2015. For more details, check here.

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