Track 17: Nancy Masters, community activist
Nancy Masters has lived in Owens Valley for most of her life. Her father, former Inyo County Board of Supervisor, Keith Bright 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 personifies the importance of local citizen engagement to conserve and protect the historical memory of the Owens Valley.
When the city of Los Angeles purchased Owens Valley land and water rights for their aqueduct project in the earlier part of the twentieth century, it acquired along with farms and ranches, much of existing home sites and commercial properties in the valley towns of Cartago, Olancha, Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine, and Bishop. This amassing of real estate led to a drastic drop in county tax revenue for the county. The city began to divest of some of these properties beginning in the 1930s with 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 in a sealed bidding competition. When valley residents and business owners protested the policy in 1945, Los Angeles simply raised their rents.
Legislation was eventually passed that required the city to give its leaseholders, the majority who were local, first option to buy purchases the city had put up for sale. It also provided some rent control provisions. The city responded by stopping all sales in the valley altogether in 1945. Divestment of valley properties owned by the city occurred sporadically through the 1960/70s with periodic sales continuing through to today. The city continues to lease commercial buildings and residential properties with mostly five-year leases, which effectively discourages most of its lessees from making substantial or lasting improvements to their homes or businesses. Land for commercial development continues to be hard to come by; Bishop’s K Mart, the only Big Box chain in the valley besides the Vons supermarket, took eleven years of negotiations before it could be built.
For the most part LADWP’s property ownership policies have kept any viable economic resurgence from resurfacing within the Owens Valley today. Although many residents credit LADWP for keeping the region’s towns free of sprawl others feel that the utility simply treats them as a virtual water colony. Benett Kessler, of Sierra Wave News states that LADWP has an active policy of opposing growth throughout the valley to protect their water supply investment. Indeed, the towns feel seemingly quaint and look picturesque as one drives through as a tourist, but on closer inspection the shabbiness of neglect surfaces. Many local residents suspect that LADWP curbs economic development and growth within the valley by sustaining blight in area towns; properties the city owns are minimally maintained and often fall into disrepair to be later demolished. Masters has called LADWP’s property management policies a, “pattern of systematic destruction of Owens Valley.”
LADWP’s culture of indifference was evident in the April 26th, 2012 with the early morning demolishment of a historic barbershop in Independence used most recently as a hair salon. The building had been documented and recorded by Inyo County as a historic structure, protected under provisions of the LTWA. Inyo County building officials stated that LADWP had applied for a demolition permit but it had not been approved on the date when the building was torn down while people slept.
Masters speculates that the early morning demolition date and time were selected 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.”
Around the time of the building’s destruction, the group had been in the process of mapping historic buildings in Independence including the hair salon. A LADWP representative later responded to a Sierra Wave News’ inquiry into the matter stating that an outside consultant determined the building structurally unsafe and not historic after all, hence the demolition. To Los Angeles’ credit a few Owens Valley properties currently owned by the city have been leased for public and county use including the Bishop’s new airport.
 William Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles Water Supply in the Owens Valley, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 380.
 Benett Kessler, “Little Shop of Sadness,” Sierra Wave Media, April 26, 2012.
 Ibid. Kessler.
Thumbnail photo: Nancy is pictured at the left with her father, Keith Bright and her sister. Photo by Paul Fretheim.