Track 17: Nancy Masters, community activist

Nancy Masters has lived in Owens Valley for most of her life. Her father, Keith Bright, acting as an Inyo County Board of Supervisor, was one of the negotiators and signators for the 1991 Inyo-LA Long-Term Water Agreement (LTWA). As a citizen activist and historical preservationist, Masters is an upstanding example of how local citizen engagement can conserve and protect the historic memory of Owens Valley’s architectural landscape.

When the City of Los Angeles purchased Owens Valley land and water rights for its aqueduct projects during the earlier part of the twentieth century, it additionally acquired farms, ranches, housing, and many of the valley’s commercial properties in the towns of Cartago, Olancha, Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine, and Bishop. This amassment of local real estate by the city led to a significant reduction in much-needed tax revenue for Inyo County. The city began to divest of some of these properties beginning in the 1930s, initially giving preference to local residents and business owners in a “spirit of good will and cooperation,” but later reneged and sold properties to the highest bidder during sealed auctions. When valley residents and business owners protested the policy, LADWP (who managed the properties) simply raised their rents.[1]

Legislation was eventually passed that required the City of Los Angeles to give preference to the existing leaseholders (the majority of which were local) as well as first option to buy when the property was put up for sale. The law also provided some rent control provisions. LADWP responded by stopping all real estate sales in the valley in 1945. Sales resumed, if only sporadically, during the 1960s/70s and occur today on a periodic basis. The current five-year lease agreements for city-owned commercial buildings and residential properties effectively discourage most of its lessees from making any substantial or lasting improvements to their homes or businesses. Land for commercial development continues to be hard to come by; Bishop’s K Mart is the only Big Box chain in the valley besides the Vons supermarket, which took eleven years of negotiations with the department before the grocery store could be built.

It is easy to assume that the LADWP’s property management policies are responsible for the depressed economy and blight seen throughout Owens Valley towns. Still, many residents credit LADWP for keeping the valley free of sprawl and unbridled development. Others, however, feel that as the city’s “water colony” there is little incentive to promote growth or provide economic opportunities for small, independent businesses. Benett Kessler, of Sierra Wave News Media states that LADWP has an active policy of opposing growth throughout the valley to protect their water supply investment. Indeed, towns appear quaint and picturesque as one tours the valley by car, but on closer inspection the shabbiness of neglect becomes apparent. Many properties owned by the city are minimally maintained and often fall into disrepair—only later to be demolished. Masters has called LADWP’s property management policies a “pattern of systematic destruction of the Owens Valley.”[2]

LADWP’s culture of indifference was evident in the April 26th, 2012 when a historic barbershop in Independence was demolished during the early morning hours. The building had been documented and recorded by Inyo County as a prized historic structure, protected under provisions of the LTWA. Inyo County building officials stated that LADWP had applied for a demolition permit but that it had not been approved prior to the building being torn down.

Masters speculates that the early morning demolition date and time were selected by the LADWP to avoid any interaction with local citizens who were opposed to the demolition of the building. Masters commented in an article published on Sierra Wave News that “the Independence Civic Club had made a proposal with volunteers and money to restore the building [but] DWP never got back to us.”[3]

The Civic Club had been in the process of mapping historic buildings in Independence including the barbershop around the time of the building’s destruction. A LADWP representative later responded to the Sierra Wave News inquiry into the matter stating that an outside consultant determined that the building was structurally unsafe—not historic after all, and hence the demolition. In contrast, a few Owens Valley properties currently owned by the City of Los Angeles are leased for public and county use at reasonable rates. These include the the Bishop public golf course and its new airport.

[1] William Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles Water Supply in the Owens Valley, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 380.
[2] Benett Kessler, “Little Shop of Sadness,Sierra Wave Media, April 26, 2012.
[3] Ibid. Kessler.

Thumbnail photo: Nancy is pictured at the left with her father, Keith Bright and her sister. Photo by Paul Fretheim.

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