Tuna Canyon Lawsuit Going to Court

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Supporters of historic-cultural designation for the Tuna Canyon Detention Station site attend a Los Angeles City Council meeting in June 2013.

Supporters of historic-cultural designation for the Tuna Canyon Detention Station site attend a Los Angeles City Council meeting in June 2013.

Rafu Staff Report

The Tuna Canyon Detention Station case will be heard in Los Angeles Superior Court, Department 82, 111 N. Hill St., on Thursday, Nov. 6, at 1:30 p.m.

At issue is the Los Angeles City Council’s unanimous decision in June 2013 to declare part of the Tuna Canyon Detention Site in Tujunga a historic-cultural landmark. During World War II, local Japanese, German and Italian immigrants and Nikkei from Latin America were declared “enemy aliens” and held at the former Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Although the land is now occupied by the Verdugo Hills Golf Course, the council voted to set aside an acre containing trees that date back to the war years.

The property owner, Snowball West Investments, has sued the city to have the landmark status rescinded. Although not opposed to recognizing the historical significance of Tuna Canyon, the owner argues that landmark status imposes restrictions that will interfere with development of the site.

Snowball, which has owned the property since 2004, plans to demolish the golf course and build a gated community with 229 single-family homes, with some land set aside as open space. The designated site would be within the gated community.

Fred Gaines, attorney for Snowball West Investments, speaks at a Los Angeles City Council meeting in June 2013.

Fred Gaines, attorney for Snowball West Investments, speaks at a Los Angeles City Council meeting in June 2013.

The lawsuit notes that the Draft EIR (environmental impact report) for the site “describes the La Tuna Canyon Detention Station and states that none of the buildings, structures or physical improvements associated with that use remain. Everything associated with the La Tuna Canyon Detention Station was removed from the property in conjunction with the establishment of the golf course in 1960, rendering the property ‘ineligible for designation under national or California historical registers.’”

The lawsuit alleges that then-City Councilmember Richard Alarcon, whose district included the property, proposed historical designation in 2012 “to appease and gain favor with opponents of the project — those who wished to prevent the project from happening and those who wished to save the golf course and preserve open space — and, in return, get their votes.” Alarcon, who was termed out last year, was running for the State Assembly at the time.

The lawsuit points out that the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission concluded that the site did not meet the criteria for historic-cultural monument designation, and argues that the City Council voted on landmark designation before its Planning and Land Use Management Committee’s recommendation — for a working group consisting of representatives from Snowball, the city and community groups — could be implemented. It is further alleged that the council vote was rushed so that it could take place before Alarcon left office.

In its response, the City Attorney’s Office stated, “The city acted within the scope of its delegated authority under the [Administrative] Code; it employed fair procedures in all the proceedings leading to the designation — and proceedings in which petitioner’s counsel attended and participated in; and finally, there is ample evidence in the record that the designation was reasonable and not arbitrary or capricious.”

Despite the commission’s recommendation, the city attorney said, “the code makes clear that council has the ultimate authority to designate” by a two-thirds vote.

The city attorney noted that while Snowball’s representative spoke out against monument designation at the commission, committee and council meetings, testimony in favor of designation was heard from several groups and individuals, including the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council, Glendale Crescenta VOICE, the Little Landers Historical Society, and family members of detainees.

Letters in favor of designation were received from, among others, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, State Sen. Carol Liu, and Russell Endo, retired professor of sociology and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, whose grandfather was detained at Tuna Canyon.

City Councilmember Richard Alarcon speaks with constituents during a June 2013 City Council meeting.

City Councilmember Richard Alarcon speaks with constituents during a June 2013 City Council meeting. Although he has left office, he is still a defendant in Snowball West Investment’s lawsuit.

The council’s decision was reasonable, the city attorney said, because a historic-cultural monument is defined as “any site (including significant trees or plant life located on the site) … of particular historic or cultural significance to the City of Los Angeles … or which is identified with … important events in the main currents of national, state or local history.”

Members of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition will be present at the hearing but will not be allowed to speak as they are not parties to the lawsuit. The coalition is made up of descendants of detainees, civil rights activists, educators, and residents dedicated to the preservation of the history of Tuna Canyon.

H. Ernie Nishii, an attorney representing the coalition, said in a response to the court as a third-party intervenor, “The facts show that the city met its burden and provided adequate and reasonable findings in relation to the historic designation of Tuna Canyon.

“It is not just buildings that are protected. If a historic building burns, the city rebuilds the history of commemorates it with a plaque; it does not suddenly lose its historic status.

“Similarly, Tuna Canyon is a historic site that requires the cooperation of the property owner, the city, and the survivors so that the purpose of the statute to prevent these sins from occurring again is honored.”

Nancy Oda, president of the coalition, wrote in her response to the court, “The San Fernando Valley [Japanese American] Community Center and San Fernando Valley Japanese American Citizens League readily supported the preservation of the oak groves … It is only a few miles away and many senior citizens have been able to verify that family members were arrested and detained there. They beg me to memorialize the site’s history now as they may not live long enough to see it.

“I strongly urge Snowball West Investments to drop its litigation and honor its promise to memorialize Tuna Canyon Detention Station in a timely manner as recommended by the Working Group.”

Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo

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