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Landowner fights lonely battle for farm's future

Owner expresses concern over agriculture's place in city's general plan.

February 03, 2011|By Joe Piasecki, joe.piasecki@latimes.com

In a remote part of the hills above La Cañada Flintridge, a landowner is fighting a lonely battle on whether small-scale commercial farming, practiced here since the late 1800s, still has a place.

William Johnson owns 67 acres along Angeles Crest Highway, where city limits abut National Forest land. He is fighting on two fronts for the right to maintain a tiny farming operation that includes a persimmon orchard and horses.

Johnson Ranch makes use of an additional 11 acres owned by Southern California Edison, land that Johnson claims the right to use. City officials dispute this, saying it cannot be farmed because it is zoned as open space. That’s a problem for Johnson, as much of his 475-tree persimmon grove is planted there.

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The conflict prompted Johnson to file a lawsuit against the city in 2008, but a judge has placed any decision on hold until June pending city revisions to the zoning code. City officials say they are looking into its definition of “open space” to see if there’s a way to give Johnson at least part of what he wants.

Complicating the issue, officials are currently looking to revise La Cañada’s general plan — the city’s foundational land-use document. Johnson says the two are related; the city says changes to the general plan and revisions to the zoning code are separate issues.

In any event, California state law requires that a city’s zoning map be consistent with its general-plan land-use map.

Johnson has more recently lobbied, without success, city officials to include language about agricultural land use in its draft revisions to the general plan, arguing La Cañada’s agricultural heritage merits preservation of small-scale farming. Public hearings on proposed changes are scheduled for the spring.

“This is the only farm left in La Cañada and I want to keep it. I want local kids to be able to have that kind of experience,” said Johnson.

He said he previously raised alpacas and a half-dozen head of cattle for use in 4-H programs, but stopped in 2009 under threat of city code enforcement penalties.

While Johnson appears perfectly comfortable strolling his rustic hillside orchard and former cow pasture, he is no stranger to law and politics.

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