The land on which the South Central Farm sits has been the site of a long and complicated series of land-use and property-rights struggles.
In 1985â€“86, the land was taken via eminent domain from private owners by the Los Angeles Department of Public Works for development of a trash-to-energy incinerator called the Los Angeles City Energy Recovery (Lancer) Project. The largest of the private owners was the Alameda-Barbara Investment Company, which owned approximately 80 percent of the land taken for the Lancer project.
The people living near the proposed incinerator site â€“ most of them African American â€“ mobilized against Lancer. At the center of the environmental-justice struggle was the newly formed community-based nonprofit organization Concerned Citizens of South Central L.A., which demanded public hearings and a health-risk assessment of the Lancer project, both of which were granted by the city. In 1987, the City Council and mayor agreed to terminate the incinerator project.
The city retained ownership of the Lancer site. In June 1994, after canceling a plan to sell it to a public-housing corporation for the creation of 316 affordable town homes, the city sold the land to the L.A. Harbor Department for $13.3 million.
In court filings, Ralph Horowitz, a partner in former property owner Alameda-Barbara, claims to have engaged in talks with the city to regain the land title at about this time. Central to his argument is a claim that the city had attempted to sell the land in violation of his right to repurchase the land should the city sell it for non-public or non-housing purposes within ten years of the condemnation. (This right was established in the 1991 final order of condemnation of the property.)
Meanwhile, the land was sitting unused, and in July 1994 the Harbor Department granted a revocable permit to the L.A. Regional Food Bank â€“ a private, nonprofit food-distribution network housed across the street from the Lancer site â€“ to occupy and use the site as a community garden.
While poor families were cultivating the land and building community there, the L.A. City Council and then-Mayor Richard Riordan began in the late 1990s to discuss conversion of the site into an industrial park as part of Riordanâ€™s Genesis L.A. economic-development program. Concerned Citizens of South Central, which had fought against the Lancer incinerator project, is listed in a 2001 report created for the mayorâ€™s office as endorsing the proposal for the Lancer Industrial Park.
In 2001, Horowitz sued the city for breach of contract and shortly received a letter from City Attorney Rocky Delgadilloâ€™s office, stating the city had denied his claim.
The farm continued to grow.
Then, in April 2002, operations began on the Alameda Corridor, a rail-cargo expressway linking the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to the inland transcontinental rail network that runs alongside the South Central Farm. This made the site valuable real estate for commercial or industrial development, pitting the environmental and social value of the community garden against the profit potential of developing the land for global-trade use.
In closed negotiations in 2003, the City of L.A. settled with Horowitz, selling him the land for just over $5 million â€“ less than half the amount for which the land was sold to the Harbor Department in 1994 and less than the $6.6 million the City Council described as "less than fair-market value" in its cancelled 1991 sale to the Nehemiah Public Housing Corporation. As part of the 2003 settlement, Horowitz agreed to donate 2.6 acres of the site for a public soccer field. The City Council approved the closed-session agreement between Horowitzâ€™s attorneys and City Attorney Delgadilloâ€™s office. Councilmember Jan Perry, who represents the 9th Council District, in which the farm is located, began seeking alternate sites to relocate the gardens.
Patrick Dunlevy, an attorney representing the farmers, says that despite repeated requests, he has never seen documents detailing the negotiations that led up to the signed settlement agreement. "There are exchanges of letters between counsel, but nothing about the nitty-gritty of the negotiations and nothing indicating why the city decided to keel over and settle the lawsuit when they were from all appearances about to win by having the court dismiss the case."
Shortly after the settlement, on January 8, 2004, Horowitz gave written notice to the Food Bank that their revocable permit to occupy the land would "terminate as of February 29, 2004."
Upon learning of their imminent removal from the land, the farmers filed a lawsuit arguing that the cityâ€™s closed-session settlement with Horowitz violated their rights, and they were granted an injunction allowing them to remain on the land until the case was resolved. When an appellate court ruled against them in June 2005, they appealed to the California Supreme Court, which in October 2005 refused to hear their case.
On March 1, 2006, Horowitz issued an eviction notice, which would be stayed pending resolution of a separate lawsuit filed by the farmers. The basis of this last legal challenge is that the cityâ€™s behind-closed-doors settlement with Horowitz constitutes waste "for two reasons," attorney Dunlevy told TNS. "The city sold it to the developer for far less than what it was worth, and the city sold it to settle a meritless lawsuit." While that case moves through the courts, the farmers and their allies are seeking political solutions.
Currently, Horowitz is engaged in negotiations with the Trust for Public Land, which hopes to buy the land for public community-garden use. The farmersâ€™ spokespeople and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have expressed support for this possible solution. The role of the City Council in these negotiations remains unclear.
Meanwhile, the farmer-organizers continue working to save the farm through legal and political channels.