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The Altadena Crest Trail: It's a Long Story

Connecting the La Vina dots.

By the late 1980’s, the area directly north of Altadena’s Lincoln Avenue known as La Vina had seen better days.

La Vina Sanitorium, an upscale tuberculosis rehabilitation facility founded in 1911, had closed its doors more than a decade earlier. Now there were no doors left to close. Or windows for that matter. Not much remained that hadn't been ripped from a wall, torn off a hinge, axed, broken, or burned.  

Walking the grounds meant picking your way through vestiges of indeterminate leftovers -- cracked glass, broken dishes, test tubes, concrete pillars -- ruins so ruined one couldn’t tell if the remnants of this room or that had been used for examinations, operations, living quarters, or something mysterious an elegant convalescent hospital may have entertained, back in the day. 

In other words, by the late 80’s, La Vina’s attractions were only evident to vandals and those who liked to stub a toe on the remains of recent history. Oh yes, and real estate developers.

Ultimately, the property was purchased for a housing subdivision. And in the early 1990’s, the new owner fenced off La Vina as construction got underway.

The fence, however, much to the surprise of those of us who weren’t really paying attention, didn’t just enclose what was left of the hospital, but considerable acreage around and above it as well. The fencing even severed a portion of an historic trail, one used daily by hikers and horseback riders – the Altadena Crest Trail.

No worries, said the developer. Once the subdivision is complete, we’ll reconnect the trail and make it better than ever, plus provide some open space recreational acreage. Everybody wins! Hooray, said the county officials.

That was almost 20 years ago.

The battle to reconnect the western side of the Altadena Crest Trail has raged on for nearly two decades. This summer, when we learned a final resolution had been reached --  the final hurdle cleared in the final law suit – it earned barely a paragraph in our local newspapers .

Maybe because the whole thing had dragged on too long. Maybe because those who covered the controversy from the beginning had, by the end, moved on to other things. Or retired.

Or maybe because no one really believes it’s over. Yes, the courts have agreed that trails can be built in a west-north-east ring around the La Vina housing development. But there’s a lot of ground to cover, virtually and actualy, between the legal right to build a trail and the trail, itself.

The long, long struggle to restore this link of the Altadena Crest Trail is a ripping good yarn. And rippingly complex, with many angles. To the best of my knowledge, here’s how it shakes out.

Originally, when a developer acquired the property at the top of Lincoln Avenue, he planned to build a modest number of houses (really modest; less than thirty) with large lots and equestrian properties. A public stable even figured into some of the original plans.

Plans changed. The number of houses increased, the size of the lots decreased, and the equestrian properties disappeared entirely.

Eventually, the La Vina project ballooned to 272 houses. And that final number was made and decided upon with the encouragement and blessing of County Supervisor Michael Antonovich.

The decision left the town deeply divided, between those who believed the development would provide jobs and reinvigorate the local economy versus those who feared the San Gabriels were dying the death of a thousand cuts, one subdivision at a time.

In exchange for a conditional use permit for a high-density development, the developer agreed to certain concessions, including easements for equestrian and hiking trails and the transfer of recreational open-space acreage to the county.

Well, one promise was kept. We got the houses.

As the 1990s wrapped up, the developer conveniently forgot about the trails and the recreational space – but who can blame him, the county forgot, too.

The only ones who didn’t forget were members of the community, particularly hikers and equestrians.

And thus began grassroots, volunteer efforts by local trail and open space advocates to get what had been originally promised in the high-density hillside development deal.

It was only in response to these efforts that county officials finally acknowledged the issue in any significant way, around 2004. But by this time, if not too late, their response was painfully tardy.

Due to shenanigans or mistakes or, let’s just say, misunderstandings (we’ll never know for certain), the open space and trail easement property, instead of transferring from the developer to the public, somehow fell into the lap of the La Vina Home Owners Association.

Here’s where things get sticky. Apparently some Association members contended that while the county had had an agreement with the developer, the county had brokered no such agreement with the Association.

The HOA either wanted to keep the land, or as Association secretary Jim Haw said at the time, “sell it to any reputable public trust for $6 million to $10 million.”

So on came the lawsuits, one by the county, and two by the local trail advocates, to re-establish the old agreements. La Vina fought back for years, but, fast forward, by 2010, threw in the towel and conceded some key points -- trails could ring the housing development and 108 acres would transfer to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

The last couple of lawsuits over the past two years dealt with some clarifications between county and the trail folks, including width of trail (six feet) and use of  trail (equestrians and hikers on the east side, hikers-only to the west).

So that brings us up to date.

As things stand today, according to Scott Kuhn, LA County Counsel Attorney, once established, the trail to the west and east of La Vina will also serve as the border between La Vina and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. The HOA issues, says Kuhn, “are resolved,” but building the trail will take some time, and depend on many things, including “negotiations between the county and SMMC, legal descriptions, and budget issues.”

Though no definite timeline has been set or can be promised, “If the trails receive first quarter approval next year, it is hoped construction could start a few months after that.”

Maybe. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is under the jurisdiction of the State of California, and California is in the middle of one honking big budget crisis. Hiking trails, environmental issues in general, may not rise to the top of the list.

Then again…

Last month I attended an Altadena Crest Trail Restoration Working Group meeting. Two county reps unfurled a map of the proposed connection between Rubio Canyon and the Altadena Crest Trail.

One of the working group volunteers studied the map and traced his finger along the trail. “This is NOT," he said, "what we agreed upon in 2006!”

Don’t mess with these guys, these volunteers such as Lori Paul, Marietta Kruells, Paul Ayers, and so many others who have been protectors of our open space. They never forget.

Steve Lamb October 04, 2012 at 05:22 PM
Well....the structures at la Vina were actually in excellent condition and the doors were on the hinges, windows in place until the mysterious fire about 1990 that occured in an unoccupied building during the lawsuit. And the HOA really has a lot of nerve to want to sell property that was to have been donated off as a part of the settlement in the FPS lawsuit against La Vina, a part that BOTH the developer and HOA have been in constant violation of. Thats the real issue behiend a lack of celebration. You can win in the Land Use battles, you can win in the lawsuit when the land Use agreements are violated, but the wealthy developers and clients keep violating the law and agreements and keep demanding you fight and fight and fight and fight. Thirty years now of the Altadena community fighting to maintain our proscriptive RIGHTS to access these trails. As your article notes, the County rolls out the map, and its not what was agreed to in 2006 and that was much less than what was agreed to in 1991, and that was less than the law demanded in 1986 and really still demands.
Steve Lamb October 04, 2012 at 05:24 PM
Go back and look at the EIR photos. The buildings were in good but abandoned condition in 1985. 86, 87. 88,and 90
Barbara Ellis October 05, 2012 at 03:43 AM
I've been following this saga for years, but have never had it explained so clearly before. La Vina is a blot on the landscape, literally, as it doesn't have the tree cover of the rest of Altadena and Pasadena- something that's very noticeable when looking down from planes heading eastward from LAX. We owe a huge debt of thanks to Lori Paul, Marietta Kruells, Paul Ayers and other members of the Altadena Crest Trail Restoration Working Group. They've put many hours, and a lot of their own money, into fighting for trail access that will benefit all of us.
Petrea Burchard October 06, 2012 at 12:33 AM
Thanks for this. It's a history I didn't know until now. It never ends, I guess, and it's so tiresome. La Vina blocking the public trails, construction in Hahamongna, NFL in the Arroyo, a "new" freeway... Such short-sighted thinking, straight out of the 1950's. These people live on a planet of the past. They are not living in the current reality.
Susan Campisi October 09, 2012 at 02:42 AM
I was thinking the same thing, Petrea. There are so many local battles we have to fight against misguided developments that put moneyed interests before the public good. I wasn't even aware of this issue so I really appreciate learning about it. Thank you, Karin. And thanks to all the people who have been fighting this battle for years. I'm inspired by your perseverance.

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