A judge has tentatively ruled that a trail which goes through private property within Franklin Canyon and is used by hikers to reach a summit that offers panoramic views of downtown Los Angeles and the Santa Monica Bay should remain open to public use.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos' preliminary ruling, issued Tuesday, enjoins Mohamed Hadid and his companies, Coldwater Development LLC and Lydda Lud LLC, from "interfering with the public recreational use of the Hastain Trail" where it crosses the developer's land.
Palazuelos also directed that Hadid remove all fencing and equipment from the trail. The hikers had complained that fences were put up at various points along their walk that were intended to interfere with their use of the trail. During a non-jury trial last month, lawyer Eric Edmunds, on behalf of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, urged Palazuelos to find that Hadid bought acreage within the canyon in 2000 that carried with it an implied public dedication of land known as the Hastain Trail that was created by law decades earlier.
The MRCA was granted permission by Palazuelos to intervene in the suit to join a citizens' group, The Friends of the Hastain Trail, as plaintiffs in the case.
"I'm very pleased," Edmunds said of the tentative decision. "I think it was critical that the judge visited the site before making her ruling."
Palazuelos, accompanied by the lawyers and a court reporter, toured the trail on Sept. 12. Edmunds said he was nonetheless "on pins and needles" until learning Wednesday of the tentative ruling, which is expected to be finalized soon.
The MRCA was was established in 1985 under the Joint Powers Act. Its members work to preserve open space and park land, including trails.
The Friends of the Hastain Trail, organized by hiker Ellen Scott, filed the lawsuit against two Hadid companies, Coldwater Development LLC and Lydda Lud LLC, in September 2011 to try to get the trail declared a public easement.
The hikers maintained that the owners of the Hastain Trail land at the time were aware that from 1967 to 1972, there were numerous other people like themselves regularly walking through their land for recreational purposes. They also maintain the public easement passed through to all subsequent owners, including Hadid.
The Hastain Trail is about 1 1/2 miles long. Most of it is on public land, but about a third of a mile is on Hadid's property, said Stephen Jones, the hikers' attorney. The plaintiffs maintained that until the Legislature changed the law in March 1972, private property could be presumed to be for public use under certain conditions, for example if property owners were on notice of open and ongoing use of their land for at least five years and did nothing to stop it.
Along with Scott, the Hastain Trail witnesses—who call themselves legacy hikers—included former longtime KABC 790 AM radio host Carole Hemingway. She and her lifetime partner, Fred Harris, said they began hiking the trail in 1970 and have done so thousands of times since then, often passing the home of Tyler Perry.
Hemingway, now 77, said she recalled seeing as many as 20 people on the trail at once during the critical five-year period and sometimes saw groups escorted by rangers, although defense attorney Phil Woog told Palazuelos during final arguments he doubted the former broadcaster and the other hikers could be positive so many years later about what they saw.
Woog said Wednesday he had not seen the tentative decision and had no immediate comment. Hadid, who has developed both residential and business developments including Ritz-Carlton hotels in Washington, D.C. and New York, bought property within Franklin Canyon—located between the San Fernando Valley and Beverly Hills—with the intent to build several large homes, according to Woog's court papers.
The lawyer maintained that the hikers' real motive is to stop his client's residential building plans rather than to preserve the trail. He also argued that declaring a public easement on the Hastain Trail would sharply diminish the development potential of the land and cost his clients millions of dollars. Woog and Hadid also maintained that much what the hikers called a trail within the developer's property was actually a fire road.
Do you think Hastain Trail should be fully open to hikers, or that the portion owned by a developer should be off-limits? Tell us in the comments section below.