The last private orange grove in the valley meets its inevitable fate

LA’s last commercial orange grove will be converted into a mix of housing and public land under a recent deal that preserves a fraction of the Tarzana Grove and removes the rest to become single-family homes.

The heirs to 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 Los Angeles’ past disappear and tried to raise money to preserve it as a than a historical monument.

Three years later, the fate of the grove is sealed. Like thousands of acres of citrus before them, most of Bothwell Ranch’s 14 acres will be suburban-style homes. Some may feature aging orange trees in their large backyards.

Why is there still some 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 remained 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 he 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 Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who represents this corner of the San Fernando Valley. “You look in all directions and you see oranges. It feels like being in another era. And when that is gone, this story will be gone.

Before the family could sell the property, Blumenfield began the process to have Bothwell Ranch designated as a Cultural Historic Landmark, halting any attempt to sell. Then a group of activists and neighbors started trying to raise money to buy the ranch.

After nearly three years, the crowdfunding campaign to preserve the entire ranch hasn’t raised enough money.

“That wasn’t happening. And we have to face reality,” says Blumenfield.

Even if the neighbors had bought the land, it would still have been a liability, points out the lawyer for the Bothwell family. That’s because it costs $250,000 to irrigate the trees and oranges don’t make that much money. “The property has been run for the past 50 years at a net loss,” says Andrew Fog. “They haven’t taken advantage of this land for decades.”

But it won’t all be houses, will it?

More than two-thirds of the 14-acre ranch will be transformed into a development consisting of 21 large homes on half-acre lots.

The remaining 30% is donated to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, or MRCA, a local agency dedicated to acquiring and preserving open space.

The MRCA will likely focus on preservation and education. It will not be a municipal park open 24/7, but may be open by appointment for events or school outings.

Paul Edelman of the MRCA says everything from a museum to a restaurant is on the table. “A French chef wanted to set up a restaurant there. And they wanted to have unamplified chamber concerts,” he says. “That’s probably the most complete development you’d see of it. And then the opposite is that if we left it, planted a lot of oak trees and watered them, that with the existing big pines that are there, that, well sure, we’ll let, that the owls can move in. And that can be their lair.

Although only a third of the land will be saved, Blumenfield says it was ultimately a better result.

“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 this property will be preserved in perpetuity,” he says. “So the designation goes away, but the donation remains and conservation will be responsible for that part of the land.”

What happens to the orange trees?

Only about 10% of the trees will be saved on the given piece of land.

One of the biggest complaints from neighbors with this arrangement was that the view from their second story windows would change. So the developers also agreed to leave two rows of orange trees along the street. Also, some of the trees will likely remain alive in the new large yards.

The developers have agreed to leave two rows of trees between the new houses and the old ones so that the view from the street does not change. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

Trees that survive are already getting old. They are also dried out and have not been pruned or picked in years.

“[The developers] are going to invest thousands of dollars in repairs and upgrades to the irrigation system, and actually begin the process of caring for the preserved and stressed trees, just with the drought conditions, and with the reduction of irrigation, and kind of fair maintenance over the past few years,” says Adam Englander of property developer Borstein Enterprises.

Most neighbors seem happy with the outcome, including Miles Lewis, who grew up next to Bothwell Ranch. He remembers field trips to the ranch with his class and the oranges that fell on his doorstep from the Bothwells. He also led the effort to preserve the orange grove, but says he feels resigned to the outcome.

“Much of the spirit and function of what we discussed under Total Preservation will be able to move forward with the MRCA plot,” he says. “From my very personal position as a neighbor who fought to preserve this, I feel like it’s a pretty respectable and workable compromise.”

Leave a Comment