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How to Destroy a Mountain

Community stakeholders are fighting a proposal that would gut the Verdugo Mountains to make way for a 200+ luxury gated residential development.

A view of the Verdugo Mountains on a clear day
A controversial proposal would destroy hundreds of acres of open space in the Verdugo Mountains. (Photo: Rio Asch Phoenix)

On a warm July morning in 2005, scores of residents of the Sunland-Tujunga neighborhood and nearby foothill communities donned black mourning garb and marched in procession behind a gleaming hearse. Outside of Northeast Valley City Hall on Foothill Boulevard, pallbearers unloaded an empty coffin as congregants held a funeral for their beloved Verdugo Mountains. The spectacle was symbolic, but the threat to the mountain was real: on the docket at Los Angeles City Council was a controversial residential development plan that would destroy hundreds of acres of open space in the Verdugos.

Though local opponents rallied hard back then and won major concessions — including a reduced development footprint, a significant portion of preserved open space, and a clause instructing the developer to remove thickets of invasive sticky eupatorium — the project was ultimately approved by council that year, granting developer Whitebird Inc. two decades to build. And then: 18 years passed with no digger in sight. But last month, residents learned that Whitebird had recently pulled a grading permit to begin cutting the mountain, escalating community resistance to an urgent pitch. 

The proposed Canyon Hills project, a luxury gated community of 221 homes with private recreational amenities (think: swimming pool, jacuzzi, tennis courts, etc.) on 55 additional lots, is set to be built on 306 acres of native chaparral, sagebrush, and oak hillside, north of the 210 Freeway in Sunland-Tujunga. “I know this project, it keeps coming back from the dead,” wrote Dan Cooper, a biologist and environmental consultant, via email last week. 

Indeed, Canyon Hills is on the haunt again, inspiring a new generation of community activists to take up the counterstrike. In February, I helped launch NO Canyon Hills (NCH), a grassroots community coalition calling for an updated environmental review of Whitebird’s sprawling development plan. Within two weeks, our petition garnered 30,000 signatures. Now, more than 160,000 people have signed on to demand a subsequent environmental impact report (EIR) for a project that is perilous at best, downright catastrophic at worst. 

What does it take to move a mountain? Well, the grading process for Canyon Hills, which alone could take as long as two years, involves leveling the scenic hillsides, cutting ridgelines, infilling valleys, altering ecologically important mountain streams, and ripping out heritage trees like coast live oaks to make the landscape suitable for construction. It would require the excavation of an estimated 3,998,100 cubic yards of dirt over 155 acres, a quantity equivalent to about 300,000 large dump trucks. 

A development map blueprint for Canyon Hills.
A site development map.

According to city officials, however, the permit could be approved any day, putting the project on a fast track to ruin precious habitat situated entirely within a Los Angeles County Significant Ecological Area (SEA). SEAs are officially designated as containing “irreplaceable biological resources” and playing a vital role in the region’s biodiversity. 

That’s why NCH sprang into action. We are calling upon CD 7 councilmember Monica Rodriguez to do what hundreds of thousands of concerned voices are urging her to do: file a motion requiring city agencies to investigate the need for additional environmental review before approving Whitebird’s grading permit. The Center for Biological Diversity and the California Native Plant Society, among others, have written letters to LA City Council outlining the devastating environmental consequences of proceeding with this project without updated environmental analysis.

The city continues to cite a two-decade old environmental study as evidence that the project meets the necessary conditions for protecting wildlife habitat and that, as such, Whitebird is in compliance. But NCH has serious doubts about certain of the study’s claims. For example, that mountain lions are not present in the development area nor any portion of the Verdugo Mountains and that, “herefore, regional movement by the mountain lion within or through the study area does not occur.” (The same document also maintains that bobcats, gray foxes, and badgers were not observed in the study.) However, wildlife photographer J. Turner recently captured footage of a young male cougar — now a candidate species for protection in California — in the Verdugos near the development site. He’s been dubbed the La Tuna Puma, and the public want to keep him around. 

“The greatest threat to cougars in Southern California is habitat fragmentation caused by urbanization. … As the last remaining large carnivore in the area, cougars represent the only species occupying the apex predator role, [and] mountain lions in the Verdugo and San Gabriel Mountains are culturally significant,” writes Korinna Domingo, director of the Cougar Conservancy, in a supporting statement to NCH. “The very preventable loss of cougars in Los Angeles would be devastating both culturally and ecologically.” 

Besides the harm the project would inflict on the environment, the proposed project site is located in an area classified as a “very high” fire hazard severity zone by the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Dangerous fire safety conditions are exacerbated by strong winds and narrow canyon roads, which pose significant challenges for first responders. It remains to be seen whether local fire safety agencies could effectively assist in the event of a mass evacuation of the estimated 800+ residents of Canyon Hills via a single egress easement to the 210 Freeway and one locked emergency evacuation gate on the other side of the canyon.

Moreover, in the wake of the devastating 2017 La Tuna Canyon fire, the question of whether potential homeowners will be able to secure fire insurance looms large. Doesn’t it make sense, then, to conduct further analysis of the fire safety threat and evacuation measures prior to approving permits? This approach is the bare minimum necessary to allow for informed decision-making, including whether large-scale development in this location is in the public interest. 

Onlookers watch as the La Tuna fire burns through the Verdugo Mountains in the distance.
Onlookers watch as the La Tuna fire burns through the Verdugo Mountains in 2017. (Photo: Kevin Cooley)

It goes without saying that we desperately need expanded housing options in Los Angeles. But shouldn’t we push the city to develop affordable housing? It’s unconscionable to defend new construction of luxury mansion estates like Canyon Hills in dangerous wildfire zones that compromise significantly biodiverse habitats, especially in a historically rural-leaning neighborhood. 

A recent report by the California Housing Partnership concluded that “the County needs to add approximately 499,430 affordable homes to meet the current demand among renter households at or below 50 percent of the Area Median Income.” The Canyon Hills development does not address this issue, where proposed single-family homes sit on vast lot sizes ranging between 9,000 and 34,000 square feet each, in addition to a homeowner association building that sits on a 200,000 square foot lot. Canyon Hills caters to a wealthy class that only exacerbates gentrification in a working class area. 

According to Data USA, the median income in the Northeast/Sunland, Sun Valley/Tujunga area is $10,000 less than neighboring Burbank, and the most common types of employment include personal care, sales and cashier work, and truck driving. The Canyon Hills development is absurdly out of sync with its surroundings, out of step with progressive urban planning measures, and will do little to relieve the housing crunch for average Angelenos. Meanwhile, noted one local opponent, “it desecrates sacred land, limits critical open space, and endangers important ecosystems.”

The Verdugo Mountains, the ancestral home of the Gabrieleno-Tongva and Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, stands largely undeveloped today as a testament to both its historical significance and its contemporary value as a vibrant, life-sustaining habitat for diverse plant and animal communities. “We are the mountains, and the mountains are us,” said Kevin Nunez, a Gabrieleno cultural keeper for the Gabrieleno/Tongva mountain space. 

On the NCH petition, Angela Gygi summed it up: “If you loved [Griffith Park mountain lion] P-22, if you care about mitigating climate change … say no to this and say yes to restoration of our wild spaces, regenerative practices, and urban soils. This will bring us much more significant, life-sustaining forms of wealth and happiness.” Comments like Gygi’s have flooded the NCH social media and petition site. We are better positioned today to understand the intersectional dialogue between capitalism, colonization, real estate speculation, gentrification, climate and environmental justice, regeneration, and conservation. It is a rare opportunity to look back on an erroneous decision from two decades prior and intervene before the mistakes are cemented in the earth. 

In a statement released by Councilmember Rodriguez’s office to NCH last month, Rodriguez suggests that she is reluctant to get involved in the issue. “The Canyon Hills Project was entitled through a development agreement approved in 2005, prior to my time in office. … The development agreement gives the developer vested rights to begin construction of the approved project until 2026. The environmental impact report (EIR) is also still legally vested with that approval, and the City cannot require additional study without a new entitlement request, of which there is currently none.”

In a private meeting between NCH and Councilmember Rodriguez’s office on Wednesday, April 5, the overriding message was that the city’s hands are tied. “They have a development agreement,” said Rodriguez, “I err on the side of doing what is legally right.” 

But this is an easy out. Under the California Environmental Quality Act, a subsequent EIR can be required for projects like this when “substantial changes” have occurred or if new information about the project site becomes available. We have evidence on both counts. Our elected officials can make a change today that would protect our open spaces, wildland habitats, precious ecosystems, and vulnerable communities for the future. The question is, why won’t they act? 

Visit the NO Canyon Hills website to request a subsequent EIR for this project.