June 22, 2018

Topanga Historical Society Remembers “The Battle for Summit Valley”



Topanga Historical Society Remembers “The Battle for Summit Valley”

Rudy McDonald holds up a signed original of the iconic "8th Dwarf" drawing by Stewart Moskowitz that helped to back off Disney’s plans to develop a gated resort community and golf course in Topanga.

More than 70 people packed the Community House for the quarterly Topanga Historical Society meeting on July 25 to relive the story of the harrowing legal battle for Summit Valley, which remains Topanga’s most dramatic victory over powerful land developers and the Disney Corporation, who owned 257 acres of pristine meadowland in upper Topanga.

Susan Nissman, who in the 1990s was the Chair of the Topanga Association for a Scenic Community (TASC) during the 16-year long fight ending in 1994, gave a detailed presentation titled “The Battle for Summit Valley” using photos, documents, newspaper clippings and live news footage compiled during the fight by Tom Mitchell.

During the hour-long presentation, Nissman who is now a senior deputy for L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, told her story first hand and recalled how the Canyon community really banded together to create signs, participate in protest marches, write letters, attend meetings and sign petitions to back off developers and defeat the projected development on the 257-acres located in a serene meadowland near the top of the Topanga Creek Watershed.

Also on display were screaming headlines from the Topanga Messenger and Los Angeles Times urging the landowners to find a better use for the property.

Topanga Historical Society Remembers “The Battle for Summit Valley”

Susan Nissman’s presentation included a quote from Al Martinez, circa 1980’s, and an image of artist Stewart Moskowitz holding a copy of his famous “Greedy” sign.

Nissman showed several dramatic photos of thousands of people lined up along Topanga Canyon Boulevard from Summit Valley to the ocean holding up colorful protest signs critical of Disney.

There was even a fabulous photo segment showing about 50 Topanga parents and kids with signs protesting at the Disney Studios in Burbank.

One sign, created by Topanga artist Stewart Moskowitz, titled “Disney’s 8th Dwarf, Greedy,” showed a demonically grinning dwarf clutching a moneybag that looked remarkably like Disney’s Chairman Michael Eisner.

“It was a different time,” Nissman said proudly. “The people said ‘No’.”

The Summit Valley battle heated up after Retlaw (Walter spelled backwards,) a Disney family corporation, acquired the land in order to develop the property as Canyon Oaks development.

Topanga Historical Society Remembers “The Battle for Summit Valley”

Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall closed out the evening with “This Land is Your Land.”

“Designed to hold 97 luxury home sites and an 18-hole championship golf course, Canyon Oaks development would have involved massive grading, loss of hundreds of oak trees and the construction of a sewage treatment plant that would provide water for the golf course,” wrote Ami Kirby, curator for the Topanga Historical Society. “The 16-year battle to defeat this development ended in a dramatic victory on March 10, 1994.”

Nissman recalled working with Bob Bates, who had served as TASC’s Chair for 18 years, about the monumental task before them. Bates told her to “Be smart and do your homework.”

And boy, did she learn fast. As the TASC’s new Chair, Nissman led a letter writing campaign against Retlaw, which led to a lawsuit, protest marches and lengthy legal battles that involved the entire community.

Nissman recalled how TASC formed committees and study groups, prepared position papers for presentation at L.A. County Regional Planning Commission hearings, met with government agencies, signed petitions, alerted the media and held fundraisers.

Throughout the presentation, Nissman also recounted some of the backroom deals, lucky breaks and sheer determination on the part of Topangans to save their canyon from destruction.

“Their hard work and intense focus paid off on March 10, 1994, when, behind the scenes at a final hearing before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, a deal was struck with the land owners to sell Summit Valley’s 257 acres plus the additional 405 acres across the road for $19.9 million to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for parkland,” Kirby wrote.

Nissman said that hundreds of Topangans crowded the Board of Supervisors that day in March and after the announcement that the land would be sold to the Conservancy, everyone broke into loud and raucous cheers at the good news.

“We were not NIMBYs [Not In My Back Yard],” Nissman said. “We wanted to save the mountains for everyone.”

The parkland, named Summit Valley Edmund D. Edelman Park, in honor of the former Los Angeles County Supervisor who supported the community’s efforts, is now enjoyed by visitors who may not realize the tough fight that went into saving the land as open space.

The L.A. Times dubbed the 16-year battle as “the longest land-use dispute in county history.”

“It was pretty damned amazing,” Nissman said of the ultimate victory over the developers. “It was a beautiful ending.”


Topanga Historical Society Remembers “The Battle for Summit Valley”

The Self Righteous Brothers and Sister sang classic Topanga anthems by Wally High at the quarterly potluck dinner and general meeting of the Topanga Historical Society.

Earlier in the evening, the Historical Society meeting started Topanga-style with a fabulous potluck supper.

Then, to get everyone into the mood, the Self Righteous Brothers and Sister sang two great songs by activist and artist Wally High, “Canyon Oaks is Coming” and the popular Topanga anthem, “Highway 27.”

The audience sang along enthusiastically, many of them who already knew the words by heart after years of singing it during the years of Summit Valley protests.

The evening then ended in an equally inspirational way as Ellen Geer and her sister, Melora Marshall, launched into a spirited version of “This Land is Your Land” while the audience clapped and sang along.

An excellent chapter about the Summit Valley battle, written by Susan Nissman, is included in the Society’s recent book, “The Topanga Story, Expanded Edition,” edited by Michele Johnson.

Copies of the book can be purchased online at topangahistoricalsociety.org or at Topanga Homegrown. Topanga Historical Society membership is $15/year for individuals and $25 for families. For more information call (310) 455-1969.