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Hikers, Land Owner Fight Over Mountain Trail Access

Those who use the Hastain Trail in Franklin Canyon want it dedicated for public use; however, it's privately owned.

A wide trail within Franklin Canyon used by hikers to reach a summit with panoramic views of downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica Bay should be formally dedicated to public use, an attorney told a judge Wednesday. The trail, however, goes through a portion of private property

Lawyer Eric Edmunds, on behalf of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, urged Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos to find that millionaire developer Mohamed 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 property was burdened when he bought it,'' Edmunds said during closing arguments in the non-jury trial stemming from a lawsuit joined by the MRCA.

The local government public entity, established in 1985 pursuant to the Joint Powers Act, is dedicated to the preservation of open space and park land, including trails.

Hadid's attorney, Phil Woog, countered that witnesses who testified they hiked on the pathway during a critical time period in the 1960s and '70s and are now members of Friends of the Hastain Trail gave statements that were vague and unreliable. Although they claimed to have seen many others like themselves walking the same trail, the passage of time makes it possible the other hikers could actually have been on other pathways in the area, he said.

"These people could have been seen anywhere," Woog said.

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.

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 maintains 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.

The plaintiffs, who gained the support of the MRCA after it was granted permission to intervene in the case on their behalf, say 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. The hikers maintain 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 hikers maintain that Hadid can still build on the land if the trail is dedicated to public use, but will just have to scale back the scope of his plans.

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 as they walk by a residential area. Hemingway, 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 Woog told Palazuelos she doubted the former broadcaster could be positive so many years later that she saw all those events on the Hastain Trail.

Woog and Hadid also maintain that much of what the hikers call a trail within the developer's property is actually a fire road.

Palazuelos has literally gone the extra mile in presiding over the trial, traveling with the lawyers to Franklin Canyon on Sept. 12 to take a tour of the trail. She also donned special glasses in her courtroom to view 3D images of the area taken by a photographer hired by the defense. Palazuelos said she will issue a ruling 10 days after she receives transcripts from the trial that the lawyers said they will present to the judge to assist her along with the exhibits.

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