Urban Farm Lawyers Vow to Fight On
Los Angeles, June 14, 2006 -- The farmers and their celebrity supporters are gone from a 14-acre inner-city garden, evicted by law enforcement officers armed with a court order.
But attorneys representing the 350 or so people who tended plots of produce and flowers said the fight is not over. They're due in court next month on a claim challenging the landowner's right to the property.
"It's going to be a long fight to make sure they get the property back," attorney James Lafferty acknowledged after Tuesday's evictions.
About 120 Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies arrived in the early morning darkness and began removing a small number of farmers and supporters who defied the owner's efforts to reclaim his land for development.
Outside the garden, protesters blocked streets and screamed as helmeted police thrusting batons made arrests.
When it all was over, the garden was under guard by men in black T-shirts marked with the word "Security," tire marks ran over crushed plants, and young fruit trees and corn stalks lay toppled on the ground.
"Everything that was here, they destroyed," said a tearful Maria de Jesus Cruz, 42, who grew onions, lemons and nectarines on the site for nine years.
Some of the damage appeared to have been caused by a small earthmover that cleared a path for fire truck that was brought in to remove actress Daryl Hannah and famous tree sitter John Quigley from their perches high in the branches of a walnut tree in the middle of the garden.
The pair raised their fists as they were brought down in a fire truck bucket.
"I'm very confident this is the morally right thing to do, to take a principled stand in solidarity with the farmers," Hannah told The Associated Press in a cell phone call before officials reached her.
Hannah was among 44 people arrested inside the garden and on the streets outside for obstructing sheriff's deputies, failing to obey a court order and failing to disperse, authorities said.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the evictions "unfortunate, disheartening." He expressed frustration that a deal could not be reached despite months of negotiation.
Landowner Ralph Horowitz, who wants to replace the garden with a warehouse, noted that the farmers were squatting on land he owned, and said he was paying $25,000 to $30,000 a month in mortgage and other land costs.
"We've made, in the last three years, enough of a donation to those farmers," he said. "I just want my land back."
Horowitz accused the farmers of ingratitude, saying they had sued him and their supporters had picketed his home and office. He also was infuriated by a Spanish-language Internet site that accused him of being part of a "Jewish Mafia" that controls Los Angeles.
Last week, the Annenberg Foundation offered to purchase the plot for $10 million in cash, and finance the balance within 12 to 18 months via donations, according to Deputy Mayor Larry Frank, a key player in the negotiations.
Horowitz declined the offer on Friday, and again this morning, Villaraigosa said.
"Even after meeting his asking price, Mr. Horowitz told me that he would not sell the property to the Trust for Public Land and the Annenberg Foundation," Villaraigosa said.
Horowitz said he gave the trust a chance to buy the property, but it couldn't raise the money.
"If the farmers got a donation and said, `We got $50 million, would you sell it to us?' I would say no. Not a chance," Horowitz told the Los Angeles Times. "It's not about the money."
Horowitz also said the city had provided alternate locations for the gardeners and most had left. In a statement, City Councilwoman Jan Perry also said many gardeners had moved to new garden sites.
The effort to save the farm attracted support of numerous activists and celebrities, including "Splash" and "Wall Street" star Hannah, Quigley, country singer Willie Nelson, actor Danny Glover, folk singer Joan Baez and tree sitter Julia Butterfly Hill.
Supporters moved onto the property full-time in mid-May and occupied the walnut tree after the judge issued the eviction order.
The roots of the dispute go back to the 1980s, when the city forced Horowitz to sell the land to for $4.8 million for a trash-to-energy incinerator. The project fizzled and the city turned the land over to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which allowed people to begin gardening there after in the early 1990s.
Horowitz sued to get the site back and the city settled in 2003 by selling it to him for $5 million.
Garden supporters took legal action, but ultimately the state Supreme Court decided against hearing the case.
In the meantime, Horowitz offered to sell 10 acres of the land for $16.3 million to a trust set up on behalf of the farmers. The group failed to raise the money before the purchase option expired May 22, and Horowitz got the eviction order.
When they go to court on July 12, the farmers' attorneys will argue that the city's sale was essentially a backroom deal.
Associated Press Writers Solvej Schou, Daisy Nguyen and Michael R. Blood contributed to this report.
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