L.A. hikers love Temescal Canyon. A developer just got fined $6 million for blocking it
With its striking “skull rock,” blooming wildflowers and panoramic views of the Pacific coastline and distant skyscrapers, the Temescal Canyon Trail is one of the most beloved hiking paths in Los Angeles.
Far less cherished, however, is an unkempt trailhead facility tucked amid multimillion-dollar homes in the Palisades Highlands neighborhood. Privately owned, the 12-car parking lot is notorious among locals for its excrement and graffiti-scrawled bathrooms, locked gates and unpaid taxes.
Now, after years of complaints, the California Coastal Commission has slapped the site’s developer, Headland Properties Inc., with a whopping $6-million fine.
“It’s a disgrace in a civilized country that property owners would expect members of the public and their children to encounter those kinds of things,” Commission Chair Donne Brownsey said recently.
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The action, taken at last week’s commission meeting, follows a convoluted history of trailhead ownership, as well as repeated failures to transfer the property to the city. During that time, commissioners say, Headland violated the access rights of countless would-be hikers who sought enjoyment in the Santa Monica mountains.
“This is a very serious violation and the public has been deprived of this trailhead for many years,” said the commission’s executive director, Jack Ainsworth. “It would only be available to those lucky few folks who can afford to live in this place.”
While property owners benefit from the privatization of the coast, the burdens are “borne disproportionately by low-income, minority and disabled communities,” enforcement analyst Heather Johnston told the commission members.
In his company’s defense, Chief Executive Edward Miller told commissioners that problems were the result of disorganized tax-keeping and lost records. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company — now Headland’s parent company — owned hundreds of properties and simply couldn’t keep track of them all, he said. They didn’t know the trailhead property had even gone into default.
“There’s still parcels here that we have no clue, kind of where they are,” Miller told commissioners. “Sometimes they get sold for taxes and sometimes they’re just here lying fallow.”
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According to Coastal Commission staff members, the facility’s troubled history began in the 1970s, when Headland Properties sought permission to build 2,000-plus homes in the undisturbed wilderness beside Topanga State Park. At the time, coastal authorities required the developer to preserve thousands of acres of land for open space.
They also ordered them to create and maintain a trailhead facility for public access to Temescal Canyon trails, with the requirement they would eventually transfer the facility to the city or a nonprofit approved by the coastal commission.
In 1995, the city agreed to take the parking lot and restrooms, but a smudged notary stamp got in the way. The county recorder’s office deemed it illegible and did not record the transfer.
Although Headland was notified of the stamp issue, it stopped paying property taxes and handed the trailhead keys to the city, which began maintaining the facilities for public use.
The property went into tax default in 2000 and was eventually sold to a buyer who quickly realized it was a public facility and reversed the sale.
Headland Properties claimed it tried to give it to the city again in 2001, but the transaction wasn’t recorded. Coastal Commission enforcement staff said Headland actually attempted to give the property to the neighborhood’s homeowners’ association.
Headland eventually deeded the property to one of its affiliates in 2010, essentially maintaining ownership under a different name. But the firm still didn’t pay taxes on it.
When it went into tax default again in 2013, it was purchased by 1205-1207 Wooster Street LLC and locked up altogether at one point.
Three years later, Wooster reopened the parking lot after the Coastal Commission’s enforcement staff said it was violating the Coastal Act.
But by 2021, still unable to use the property it had paid $350,000 for, Wooster filed a lawsuit against the city and county of Los Angeles, the state of California and Headland.
At last week’s meeting, the Coastal Commission unanimously passed a cease-and-desist order and administrative penalty on the Headland development company on the recommendation of staff.
The penalty includes $6-million fine, with the option of reducing it to $5 million if Headland took immediate action to make amends, including paying for the cleanup and restoration of the restrooms and facilitating transfer of the property to the city, as it was originally required to do. The money will go toward coastal restoration projects.
Wooster’s role was not addressed at the hearing, as it has been cooperative in trying to find a solution with the Coastal Commission, enforcement staff said. The company’s attorney said it was in the process of working out an agreement to settle the lawsuit with the commission, but not any of the other parties involved.
“I consider this to be … one of the most egregious violations that I’ve witnessed during my time on the commission,” said Commissioner Caryl Hart. “This idea of supposed inability of Headland to know what’s going on while at the same time reaping over $300,000 in benefits, it’s painfully obvious to me that … what they did was purposeful.”
Community members say they are eager for a resolution to the matter.
“It’s absolutely needed as one of the major accesses to the Santa Monica Mountains,” said Temescal Canyon Assn. president Gilbert Dembo. “There’s lot of trailheads within the Highlands — this isn’t the only one —but this one has a bathroom. When you have thousands of people hiking in the mountains, you need facilities.”
On a recent visit to the trailhead, a reporter found the parking lot open, although only one of the facility’s two graffiti-covered bathrooms was unlocked. On the floor lay a blanket of debris and human waste.
Less than a quarter mile away, up a switchback fire road, the Temescal Canyon Trail begins. Surrounding the path is drought-hardy California sagebrush, whose tiny white aromatic flowers earn it the nickname “cowboy cologne,” and small manzanita trees with leathery oval leaves. Occasionally, single stalks of obtrusive yucca burst forth from rosettes of sword-shaped leaves.
Hikers Brian and Tobi Coughlin made their way along the trail, which they visit every week.
“It’s a way to think about the job I’m working on without staring at the computer,” said Brian Coughlin, a 60-year-old documentary writer. “It’s a great trail, it changes every year.”
“It’s so rewarding being out here,” Tobi Coughlin said. “It’s so good for mental health and physical health.”
While hiking earlier that week, the husband and wife snapped a photo of a bobcat.
The two said they knew of the trailhead in the Palisades Highlands neighborhood but had never used the bathrooms because of their disrepair. They were disappointed to hear its back story.
“That’s just not right for the community, people want to be able to have access to the trail,” Brian Coughlin said.
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