William Johnson

William Johnson stands by the persimmon orchard he planted seven years ago above La Cañada Flintridge. (Tim Berger/Staff Photographer / January 2, 2013)

William Johnson has been fighting for several years to keep his small farm alive, but the General Plan the city of La Cañada is getting ready to adopt won’t do him any favors.

It appears likely Johnson will be forced to shut down his operation, and perhaps tear out a 475-tree persimmon grove.

Johnson has owned his 67-acre parcel along Angeles Crest Highway in the hills above La Cañada since about 1997. He also makes use of 11 acres owned by Southern California Edison.

Fred Buss, the city’s Senior Planner, said the current draft of the city’s General Plan does not allow for agricultural activity on the land where the persimmons are planted.

The General Plan will come before the City Council for review on January 22, Buss said. The document, a wide-ranging planning blueprint for the city, may be adopted this month or in February, he said.

Johnson said that he has long supported urban farming and agriculture, and planted his persimmons seven years ago after the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggested the fruit tree would flourish in the area. Edison has no objections to his use of its property.

“I think it’s a really good thing for society to have, to be able to grow your own fruit,” he said. “And persimmons are a good December gift fruit when they’re dried, so there will be a strong market for it, I believe.”

Johnson may never see a crop, however. Persimmons usually do not bear fruit until they are seven years old, and by this time next year the city may have outlawed Johnson’s farm.

Once the General Plan is approved, the city will move to update its zoning ordinances to match it. At that time Johnson would be required to stop using Edison land, which includes the persimmon orchard, said Buss.

City Manager Mark Alexander said that the Planning Commission could institute an overlay zone to accommodate Johnson after the fact, but that Johnson would have to submit an application first.

Charles Gelhaar, former president of the homeowner’s association at the Angeles Crest Estates development, which abuts Johnson’s property, said neighbors have more pressing concerns than persimmons.

“Neighbors aren’t worried about the persimmons,” he said. “It’s the fact that he had cows and horses and alpacas up on his property. You’re supposed to put [animal] waste in metal containers daily and remove it weekly, and he just wasn’t doing it.”

Gelhaar, who served on the city’s Planning Commission from 2000 to 2010, said Johnson has a history of disregarding city ordinances.

“Everybody else in this town seems able to abide by our animal-keeping ordinances and our other ordinances,” said Gelhaar.

Johnson defended his operation and said that if the city doesn’t include an agricultural overlay in the General Plan, he might try to gather signatures to request an amendment.

“I used to have cows and hope to have cows again,” he said. “I want to continue to have this be a good working farm.”