Altadena Residents to County: Tear Down This Wall!

A retaining wall illegally built in the Rubio Cañon stream bed still stands as the rainy season approaches. The County says it must be torn down by Monday unless the owner can demonstrate how to keep it from impacting neighbors

By Justin Chapman, Altadena Patch, 10/26/2010

More than a month after the county issued a stop-work order to two Altadena residents for building a 10-foot retaining wall in the Rubio Cañon streambed, the wall and all the tools used to build it remain.
With rainy season approaching, angry residents are saying the wall's location could alter the flow of water and debris, producing safety hazards in the neighborhood.  They also claim that two oak trees were cut down, a loss of a valuable natural resource.
"I believe we should prosecute these people," said Mark Goldschmidt, chairman of Altadena Heritage. "Heavy rains could come through and move 40,000 feet of sediment and change the whole topography. This is right by urban interface and definitely has wildlife value. It really is a theft of land from the people, especially the oak trees."
The wall was constructed on the property of Moninder and Ruchi Birdi, but its construction was illegal, as it was in a protected streambed.  The construction allegedly also took out two large oak trees, a crime punishable by up to $20,000 per tree.
While Moninder acknowledges there may be problems with the wall, he denies that any trees were cut down.
"I want them to show me where these oak trees were that I supposedly removed, or I am going to sue them for defamation," said Moninder. "My wife and I are tree lovers. That's why we live there. I'm not building or expanding anything, I just want to protect my property and my family."
He said the reason he wanted the wall built in the first place is because boulders fall down into the canyon and cause damage to his property. The Birdis also said they have had regular encounters with a large bear, and they believe the wall can block it from their home.
The stream, located just north of where Rubio Cañon Road turns into East Loma Alta Drive, is what's called a blue-line stream. It has certain legal standing, and even if you own the property, as the Birdis do, you cannot do work on it. Essentially it is undevelopable land.
Before the stop-work order was issued, the Birdis claim they were unaware that they needed permits to build the wall on their property.
Besides grading the streambed and building the stone wall in a position that could divert the entire stream to the east, workers also made a path north into the streambed. Moninder said the Spanish-speaking workers built the wall larger than he intended.
Other vegetation and sand have also been removed. Several huge piles of rocks dot the property, which includes the Birdis' home and an old octagonal building that once was a Boy Scout facility and the gateway to Camp Huntington before the bridge and dam to the south were built. Tools, wheelbarrows and other equipment still surround that building.
So far, the Birdis have been charged by the county for building the wall and grading without permits.
Martin Barco, an engineer with L.A. County Building and Safety who issued the stop-work order, is working with an engineer hired by the Birdis to mull their options and obtain any necessary permits. However, the Birdis are considering taking the wall down anyway.
They are working on a mitigation plan with the county that should be released in the next week.
In the mean time, the county has done little to weigh in on whether the situation should be considered hazardous or not.
Larry Tran of L.A. County Public Works said he is investigating the situation and should have more information soon, but did not have further comment.
Paul Ayers, staff counsel of Save the Altadena Trails organization, is doubtful that the county will do anything about the situation.
"They should have regulatory agencies swarming all over them," he said. "I want the county to go in there with a bulldozer tomorrow and take that wall out. ... Unfortunately, my experience is the county won't do anything."
It takes a lot more than just a few complaints to get the county to act, he added.
"At the end of the day what usually happens is there's some kind of casualty, and there's a lawsuit," Ayers said.
Ayers added that he doesn't think the Birdis are bad people intentionally working against the public interest, they're just ignorant about the rules they are violating.
But Moninder Birdi feels that the public has assumed the worst about them.  He noted that commenters on a story posted on the Altadenablog last month were particularly harsh.
"We're a young couple, we don't have a lot of resources, and this has been so stressful for us," said Moninder Birdi. "Every comment in the Altadenablog story really hurt us."
He said the entire experience has made him wonder why people have not been willing to work out their problems directly with him.
 "We love living there, and if push comes to shove and we can't afford it, we'll take the wall down," Birdi said. "But if people are concerned, why haven't they called me and talk to me about it? Nobody ever called me. Let's talk it out, guys. If we're neighbors, treat me like a neighbor."
There is still some question of what it will mean if the wall is not taken down.
Moninder claims the wall is actually a long boundary of the bank and that it just so happens that the boundary cuts into the stream where the wall was built.  He's not sure the wall will be as damaging as others have said.
Others claim the wall does cut into half of the streambed, it has altered the flow of the stream and water could be diverted to those vulnerable pipes.  Many of those pipes connect to mains that run into Pasadena.
"This is really frightening," said Altadena resident and real estate agent Steve Haussler. "I'm most concerned that the county isn't doing anything. I believe in due process, but I also believe in the police powers of the state to remove that obstruction. If they do nothing and damage occurs, they are liable. There's a time when government has to act for public safety."
Haussler, who has family that lives in the area, said major events happen in that canyon every 15 years. Surrounding properties are in danger, pipes could be washed out and a catastrophic event might knock the whole thing out, he said. There's also the danger of a rock flow in the canyon bed that hasn't come down yet.
"If they cause damage to my family's property, and the county's aware of it, what's our recourse?" Haussler added.
As anyone familiar with Altadena knows, activists here don't mess around when it comes to water.
In July a stream in Millard Canyon that is home to rare wildlife dried up after the Lincoln Avenue Water Company diverted the water away to test pipes, prompting the U.S. Forest Service to send the utility company a cease and desist letter.
Reporter Laura Monteros of the Altadena Headlines Examiner wrote at the time that the conflict between the company and local residents was fed by failures in communication between the parties, a lesson that could certainly be applied to the current situation in Rubio Cañon.
UPDATED: Since publication of this article, Kerjon Lee of LA County Flood Control has informed Altadena Patch that the Birdi's are required to tear down the wall by Monday, November 1 or submit a mitigation plan that would demonstrate how to keep the wall and avoid any negative impacts on neighbors.