LA’s last commercial orange grove will be converted to a mix of housing and public land under a recent agreement that preserves a fraction of the Tarzana grove and removes the rest to become single-family homes.
The heirs of the 14-acre orchard known as Bothwell Ranch put it up for sale in 2019. But neighbors didn’t want to see this relic of LA’s past go and tried to raise money to preserve it as a historic monument.
Three years later, the grove’s fate is sealed. Like thousands of acres of citrus trees before them, most of the 14 acres of Bothwell Ranch will be suburban-style houses. Some may feature aging orange trees in their large backyards.
Why is there still any kind of ranch in the San Fernando Valley?
Once upon a time, when most of the San Fernando Valley was full of agricultural fields, a man named Lindley Bothwell bought a ranch in Tarzana to sell oranges. He stayed from 1926 until his death 60 years later, after which his wife, Annie, kept the trees alive as a testament to him. Once they were no longer profitable, she sold other assets to keep watering them. When she died in 2016, the heirs of Bothwell Ranch decided it was time to sell it.
“When you walk into this orange grove … you walk into a time capsule,” says City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, who represents this corner of the San Fernando Valley. “You look in every direction and you see oranges. You feel like you’re in another era. And when this is gone, that history will be gone.”
Before the family could sell the property, Blumenfield started the process to get Bothwell Ranch designated as a cultural historical monument, effectively pausing any attempt to sell it. Then a group of activists and neighbors started trying to raise the money to buy the ranch.
After nearly three years, the crowdfunding campaign to preserve the entire ranch didn’t raise enough money.
“That wasn’t happening. And we have to deal with reality,” Blumenfield says.
Even if the neighbors had bought the land, it still would have been a liability, points out the Bothwell family lawyer. That’s because it costs $250,000 to irrigate the trees, and the oranges don’t bring in that much money. “The property was run for the last 50 years at a net loss,” says Andrew Fog. “They haven’t made profit off of this land in decades.”
But it won’t all be houses, right?
More than two-thirds of the 14-acre ranch will get turned into a development comprised of 21 big homes on half-acre lots.
The remaining 30% is being donated to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, or MRCA, which is a local agency that’s all about acquiring and preserving open space.
The MRCA will likely focus on preservation and education. It won’t be a city park that’s open at all hours of the day, but may be open by appointment for events or school field trips.
Paul Edelman with the MRCA says anything from a museum to a restaurant is on the table. “A French chef wanted to put a restaurant there. And they wanted to have non-amplified chamber concerts,” he says. “That’s probably the most full-blown development you would see of it. And then the opposite of that is if we just left it, and planted a lot of oak trees, and watered them, that along with the existing big pine trees that are there, which, of course we’ll leave, that the owls can move in. And it can be their haunt.”
Even though only a third of the land will be saved, Blumenfield says it was ultimately a better outcome.
“Instead of preservation by designation, it’s preservation by donation, which creates a much greater sense of certainty [since] we know that a third of that property will be preserved in perpetuity,” he says. “So the designation goes away, but the donation remains and the conservancy will be responsible for that portion of the land.”
What happens to the orange trees?
Only about 10% of the trees will be saved on the donated portion of land.
One of the biggest complaints from neighbors with this arrangement was that the view out their second-story windows would change. So the developers also have agreed to leave two rows of orange trees along the street. Plus, some of the trees will likely stay alive in the new, large backyards.
The trees that survive are already getting older. They’re also parched, and have not been pruned or picked in years.
“[The developers] are going to be investing thousands of dollars for repairs and upgrades to the irrigation system, and actually start the process of nursing the preserved, stressed trees back to health, just with the drought conditions, and with the reduction in irrigation, and sort of maintenance just over these past few years,” says Adam Englander with housing developer Borstein Enterprises.
Most neighbors appear to be satisfied with the outcome, including Miles Lewis, who grew up next to Bothwell Ranch. He remembers field trips to the ranch with his class, and oranges dropped on his doorstep from the Bothwells. He also led the effort to preserve the orange grove, but says he feels resigned to the outcome.
“A lot of the spirit and function of what we discussed as a part of the total preservation will be able to move forward with the MRCA parcel,” he says. “From my completely personal position as a neighbor who's been fighting to preserve this, I feel like it's a pretty respectable, workable compromise.”