LOS ANGELES — Drive through the San Fernando Valley and it is easy to spot the hallmarks of suburban Southern California: streets lined with palm trees, carefully sheared hedges and red-tiled roofs, a blur of tidy development.
But turn a corner in one neighborhood and a 12-acre orange grove comes brightly into view.
Bothwell Ranch is one of the last remaining orange groves in the San Fernando Valley, a vestige of the long-evaporated citrus industry. The grove, with its tightly packed rows of orange trees, calls to mind another time, before relentless development transformed this rural agricultural area into endless sprawl.
The ranch is at the center of a growing dispute between its owners, who have sought to sell it to luxury housing developers, and community members who believe it should remain an orchard. The Los Angeles City Council is considering a proposal to give the site a historic designation to preserve at least part of the orchard.
Whether the family sells the property is still to be seen.
“At this point, they’re just trying to figure out what to do because there has been so much interest,” said Ciara Trujillo, a senior vice president with the real estate firm Colliers International. A lawyer representing the family did not respond to a request for comment.
But for many, regardless of the family’s decision, the orchard has become a symbol of the ways that development in Los Angeles County has run amok.
Decades of population growth, rising property values and the spread of single-family homes have transformed the landscape. At the same time, the shortage of affordable housing in the region has intensified questions about where to build and how to retain the character of neighborhoods as they grow.
To grow or to house?
Critics of the Bothwell Ranch sale have largely appealed to nostalgia, which has resonated with longtime valley residents.
Paul Ayers, a lawyer and amateur archivist who grew up in the valley, said he worries that the region’s rural history may be forgotten. He recalled the transformation of the area since the mid-20th century, when manufacturing took off and groves were razed in favor of houses, pushing the citrus industry north. His father worked in citrus, and he has studied how the industry declined because of the joint pressures of rising land prices and corresponding spikes in property taxes.
For many families living on San Fernando Valley farmlands, Ayers said, selling to developers and moving to cheaper, more agriculturally prosperous regions like Tulare County, where more than 40% of citrus fruits are now produced, just made sense.
“California was built on the ideal of Spanish-themed orange groves under the moon,” he said. “That’s how it was sold. That brought a lot of people to California.”
“There’s nostalgia, there’s regret about what has happened to Los Angeles with the uncontrolled growth,” he added. “People can only hold on to that image as long as there’s something out there to hold on to.”
Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who represents the San Fernando Valley, recently put forward a motion to designate the ranch a historic monument. Although the ranch is private property, the motion immediately puts a halt on any potential demolition permits, he said, and may discourage buyers who are wary of dealing with a property that has historic designation.
The goal of the motion, Blumenfield said, was to slow the process down “so that other uses that are more compatible with our history and community can be considered.”
“This is the last bit of our agricultural history in the San Fernando Valley and it could potentially be lost forever,” he added. “It was a 100-acre ranch and these are just the last 13 acres of it, the last vestige. Everything else has been turned into housing.”
A huge revenue stream
Orange groves covered 41,000 acres of Los Angeles County in 1950, when it was the most prosperous agricultural county in America, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Now, just 76 acres of orange groves remain, even as the state remains responsible for more than a third of America’s oranges.
“There are more orange trees in backyards than in commercial operations” in the valley, said Casey Creamer, president of California Citrus Mutual, an advocacy group.
“Land values for development are far more lucrative than commercial farming operations in Southern California,” Creamer said. “The need for housing in these population centers far outweighs any sort of revenue stream you can get out of farming in California.”
Luxury in the old groves
The Bothwell family took over the orchard in the 1920s when Lindley Bothwell, a cheerleading coach at the University of Southern California and a vintage car collector, bought the ranch. When Bothwell died in 1986, his wife, Helen Ann Bothwell, managed the ranch until her death in 2016.
“It brings me up short when I think of it every once in a while, that it’s the last of its kind,” Bothwell said in 1998. “But somebody has to be first, and somebody has to be last.”
When the Bothwells began managing the grove in the 1920s, there were fewer than 75,000 people living in the valley. The population grew rapidly over the next few decades, transforming the region, which now is home to more than 1.85 million people.
Los Angeles County today has a severe housing shortage, in part fueled by a resistance to building more, cheaper homes. But development on the Bothwell property — which is nestled between the Woodland Hills and Tarzana neighborhoods — would most likely not have much of an effect on access to affordable housing. The homes that border the property reach easily into seven-figures and feature expansive grounds, outdoor pools and tennis courts, according to property records and satellite images.
For now, the historic designation is uncertain, although Blumenfield says he is confident his colleagues on the City Council will cooperate. He noted the council’s powers are limited when it comes to deciding the future of the ranch but said the designation would at least give the city leverage to request some of the grove be preserved and perhaps opened to the public for educational and historical purposes.
“We’re often looking at situations where we’re saving the last of the art deco houses, the last of this, the last of that,” he said.
Jeff Ward is the fourth-generation owner of E. Waldo Ward & Son, a shop that sells jams and marmalades in Sierra Madre, 30 miles east of Bothwell Ranch. Long before Ward took over the store, the family citrus farm was about 30 acres, but it’s now less than a tenth the size, only about an acre of which is made up of oranges.
Ward says he’s seen too many nearby groves turn from branches to buildings.
“Things change,” he said.