SECESSION TUG OF WAR; COMMUNITIES SPLIT BY IDENTITY CRISES.
For nearly an hour, community activists in the hills above Universal City debated over which city they wanted to live in - Los Angeles or the Valley.
Before about 40 members of the Hollywood Knolls Community Club, President Dan Riffe asked for a show of hands: How many were interested in seceding?
Four hands shot up. Opposed? Twenty.
Next question: If they had to choose between secession movements active in the San Fernando Valley and Westside Los Angeles, how many would pick the Valley? Six. The Westside? About 25.
A scientific poll of Valley voters released earlier this month has inflamed debate on cityhood. The poll, sponsored by prominent civic leaders Bert Boeckmann and David Fleming, found a 2-1 margin of secession.
But the numbers were uneven. Support was overwhelming in the communities in the North Valley but much weaker with bare majorities on the hillside communities that stretch west from Hollywood Knolls to Woodland Hills.
``A lot of people here work in the industry: actors, directors, technical people, lawyers,'' said Florence Blecher, president of the Cahuenga Pass Property Owners Association.
``So that's the principal identity. . . . There's always been this bond with Hollywood and the energy of that city, its myth and its aura.''
Both the Cahuenga Pass and Hollywood Knolls homeowners groups are now grappling with the secession issue, trying to figure whether to back cityhood efforts in the Valley or the Westside - or just try to stay in a city called Los Angeles.
The issue is by no means simple or clear-cut, and opinions vary sharply.
``There are three possible outcomes, and all three have been mentioned to me as the only obvious choice,'' said Riffe, the Hollywood Knolls club president.
For Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment, the group pushing for a public study of secession, the dilemmas posed by hillside communities reflect a core challenge: how to draw support from neighborhoods that have different needs and outlooks.
Valley VOTE leaders, some of whom live in the Southeast Valley, say they will try to woo hillside dwellers with the same pitch that they assert has worked elsewhere in the Valley.
What they tell people is that an independent Valley city would be more manageable than Los Angeles and give residents more control over local government.
``We'd be smaller, more organized, more sensitive,'' said Valley VOTE Co-Chairman Jeff Brain.
That pitch may work, at least to some degree.
Cahuenga Pass residents say they want greater control over local land-use decisions, like possible future expansion at Universal City. But these communities view secession in the context of issues that are different from those facing most other Valley communities.
``Cahuenga Pass is an area that's neither in the Valley nor in the hills,'' said neighborhood resident Joan Luchs, who has become active in Valley VOTE but is interested in speaking with Westside organizers. ``We're not paid attention to. Our issues are not addressed.''
In Sherman Oaks, where Valley VOTE was created, cityhood opponents outnumbered supporters by about 6 percent.
Residents of the area cite several reasons for the relatively low interest in secession. Their communities are prosperous and, in general, have few of the problems with poor city services that fuel pro-secession sentiment elsewhere. Their concerns tend to revolve around traffic and land-use issues, not potholes or unlighted streets.
Richard Close, co-chairman of Valley VOTE and president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, said his community is sufficiently organized to command the respect of Los Angeles officials. Founded in 1964, the association represents about 2,300 families.
``We're not as disenfranchised as some of the other communities,'' he said. ``Since we have a very organized association, we can get the attention of City Hall.''
No Valley identity
Hollywood Knolls perhaps has the most complicated situation. When Valley VOTE issued a map of the area that may, one day, break away from Los Angeles, the borderline cut right through the center of Hollywood Knolls, along Barham Boulevard. The map was drawn from a state law that defined the Valley's borders for the purpose of gathering statistics.
Some residents are irked that Valley VOTE and Brain didn't consult with them before drawing the map.
``We have a community,'' Josie Leoni said. ``Who is some guy from the Valley to come here and cut it in half?''
Although many residents aren't interested in seceding, the community club wants to discuss the border both with Valley VOTE and the Westside Cityhood Coalition. The neighborhood should decide now which city it would rather be in, residents say, just in case secession someday becomes a reality.
``If these two groups are drawing lines, we need to get on one side,'' said club board member Paul Haje.
Close said Valley VOTE isn't interested in hijacking neighborhoods. If Valley VOTE and the Cahuenga-area communities fail to agree on a border, residents could always petition the county's Local Agency Formation Commission to redraw the map. If San Fernando Valley cityhood ever comes to a public vote, LAFCO would have final say over the area that would be detached from Los Angeles.
``We don't want people brought kicking and screaming into the new city,'' Close said.
In Cahuenga Pass, the homeowners association also plans to meet with the two secession study groups as well as survey residents, asking which way the neighborhood should go.
Members of both groups say they want to stay in the same city as the neighborhoods that surround them. They also want to be in whichever community contains Universal City, a tourist magnet that many area residents view as a traffic- and noise-generating nuisance.
If Universal ends up in an independent Valley city and the nearby communities become part of the Westside, neighbors fear they would lose any control over new development at the entertainment center.
``We do not want to be in another city from where Universal is,'' said Paul Ramsey, a member of the Hollywood Knolls Community Club.
If the two communities decide to work with the Westside coalition, both say they will try to take Universal with them.
But Universal currently lies within the Valley VOTE proposed study boundary, and Brain said the group isn't likely to give it up.
``There's little chance of the leadership of the Valley - and the people of the Valley - saying to Cahuenga Pass, go ahead, take Universal,'' he said.