August 05, 2006

South Central Farmers Lose Latest Court Fight

by Jessica Hoffmann
July 27
A judge has ruled in favor of the private developer who recently bulldozed the approximately 14-acre South Central Farm, which was thought to be the largest urban community garden in the United States.

In a six-day trial, attorneys for the farmers had argued that the City of Los Angeles’s 2003 closed-door sale of the farm site to developer Ralph Horowitz constituted a waste of public resources. Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Helen I. Bendix ruled that the farmers’ attorneys had not proved their case.

The decision was a blow to hundreds of farmers who have engaged in a years-long land-rights struggle at the site. More than 350 families, most of them low-income immigrants from Mexico and Central America who lack access to quality produce and greenspace, have been cultivating survival gardens on the land for more than 14 years.

The farmers had argued that the city’s sale of the land to Horowitz for less than fair-market value was wasteful.

Reading her decision on Wednesday, Bendix stated that her court "cannot say that fair-market value [for the land] is so far above the amount paid [by Horowitz to the city] to call it waste." Bendix noted that she did not find credible one of the plaintiffs’ key witnesses, an appraiser who testified that the $5 million price tag was far below fair-market value for the land in question.

Nevertheless, Bendix indicated that she recognized the land owner Horowitz as a "credible witness" on the subject of the land’s value, citing his "familiarity" with the issues at hand and his "demeanor" during testimony.
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In a press conference outside the courthouse after the judge’s statement, Dan Stormer, an attorney for the farmers, called the closed-door sale to Horowitz "a travesty and a gift of public funds to Mr. Horowitz." Stormer said there were "errors" in Bendix’s decision. He declined to elaborate on the "errors" until he has reviewed the decision in detail, but he promised to appeal the decision.

South Central Farm spokesperson Tezozomoc said in the same press conference that he was "extremely disappointed" with the decision, which he believes gave "little consideration" to the hundreds of farmers who have relied on food from the gardens. Asked how the mostly low-income farmers are faring now that they have lost the site at 41st Street and Alameda Avenue as a food source, Tezozomoc replied, "A lot of the farmers are having to tighten up their belts and rely on their extended families."
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In Spanish, farmer spokesperson Rufina Juárez told press and supporters that, as a woman of color, she sees the judge’s decision in this case as part of a history of decisions by the courts against "the people."

After decades of legal and political struggles, the farmers were forcibly evicted from the site on June 13. In early July, all crops remaining there were bulldozed. Ten people were arrested on July 5 for trying to stop the bulldozer. One protester laid down in front of the bulldozer, another chained himself to it, and others attempted to clog the exhaust pipe with an 18-inch zucchini.

Police also arrested some protesters for allegedly hitting the bulldozer driver and throwing a crate at a police officer. Jonathan Diamond of the Los Angeles city attorney’s office told TNS that no charges have been filed to date. The cases are currently under review by the city attorney’s office.

Tezozomoc stated at Wednesday’s press conference that another lawsuit based on the destruction of farmers’ personal property during and after the forcible eviction is "on the way."

Although Horowitz has insisted that he will not sell the land to the current crop of farmers under any circumstances, both Stormer and Tezozomoc said farmers and their supporters are "absolutely" still fundraising with hopes to buy back the land. Horowitz has refused to sell to the farmers at any price, saying he believes the farmers have vilified him in the media.

Meanwhile, the farmers continue to organize for an eventual rebirth of the South Central Farm and other community gardens like it. They have obtained a temporary permit to hold a community event featuring Aztec dancing this Sunday on a city-owned internal alleyway that runs through the former farm site.

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