Topanga Canyon State Scenic Route.jpg

A portion of the view from the newly-minted Topanga Canyon State Scenic Highway

Don’t expect to see any big developments appear along Topanga Canyon any time soon.

Caltrans recently announced the creation of California’s newest officially designated State Scenic Highway—the “Topanga Canyon State Scenic Highway.” The scenic designation runs from the intersection with Pacific Coast Highway at Topanga County Beach and runs north for three-and-a-half miles. The new scenic highway runs parallel to Topanga Creek, with views of massive rock formations, valleys, mountains, and a diversity of plants and animals.

California’s scenic state highway program was implemented in 1963 in order to “add to the pleasure of state residents,” and “encourage the growth of recreation and tourist industries.” Designated scenic highways, along with adjacent scenic corridors, require special conservation treatment. Scenic corridors consist of land that can be seen from the scenic highway and is next to the highway, even if it is outside the highway right-of-way.

The legislation lets the state assign responsibility for the regulation of land use and development along scenic highways to the appropriate state, local and county agencies. “The city or county must also adopt ordinances, zoning and/or planning policies to preserve the scenic quality of the corridor or document such regulations that already exist in various portions of local codes,” Caltrans specifies.

According to Westways magazine, this was the first LA County road to receive the state scenic highway designation in 45 years. It was reported as the culmination of a five-year effort by Topanga Chamber of Commerce members Joseph Rosendo and Roger Pugliese, along with the Topanga Association for a Scenic Community working with county and city officials to develop a scenic corridor protection program.

“Topanga Creek is the third largest watershed in the Santa Monica Bay and the last free running stream from the crest of the mountains to the sea,” information provided by Caltrans said. “It features the greatest diversity of native plants and animals of any watershed in the Santa Monica Mountains.”

The Caltrans press statement detailed some of what can be seen from the winding roadway. 

“The new Topanga Canyon State Scenic Highway travels through a portion of Topanga State Park, which features 36 miles of trails through open grassland and live oaks, and spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean,” it said. “The park is one of the world’s largest wildlands within the boundaries of a major city.”

The scenic highway designation was made possible by City and County of Los Angeles policies and development standards, and the California State Parks ecological preservation mission. The designation will also help ensure that, “the natural scenic beauty of the canyon will be preserved for generations to come,” according to Caltrans.  

Two other new state scenic highway designations were made at about the same time as Topanga’s. The Gaviota Coast State Scenic Highway now covers 21 miles of Highway 101 from the City of Goleta’s western boundary to Route 1 at Las Cruces in Santa Barbara County. The other is State Route 52 in San Diego from post mile 9.5 to post mile 13.0, adjacent to Mission Trails Regional Park.

Caltrans places scenic highway signs with the poppy logo along officially designated scenic routes.

The state’s criteria for a scenic highway requires that it “traverse an area of outstanding scenic quality containing striking views, flora, geology and other unique natural attributes.” 

Caltrans evaluates the merits of a nominated highway on how much of the natural landscape a traveler can see, and the extent to which “visual intrusions” impact the scenery. In addition, strong local support for the proposed scenic highway designation must be demonstrated, and the length of the proposed scenic highway must be one mile or more.   

The local governing body with jurisdiction over the lands adjacent to the proposed scenic highway must demonstrate citizen support and adopt a program to protect the scenic corridor. The zoning and land use along the highway must meet the Sstate’s legislatively required elements for protection. 

The local governing body must prepare a visual assessment of a proposed scenic highway, consult with Caltrans and prepare a proposal to Caltrans with specific state-required information. 

The designation may not last forever, though.

Once a highway is officially designated as scenic, visual changes to the corridor can result in Caltrans revoking that designation if it determines that the Corridor Protection Program or the scenic quality of the corridor no longer complies with guidelines. Caltrans conducts compliance reviews once every five years.

Visual changes that can disqualify a scenic highway include residential or commercial development, land uses like dumps, quarries and junkyards, parking lots, billboards, power lines, agriculture, clearcutting, and grading.

Looking forward to a designation within city limits?

Elsewhere in the Malibu area, the Caltrans website shows PCH in Malibu as “eligible” for a state scenic highway designation, but no application has ever been made. A section of Malibu Canyon Road is officially designated as a county scenic highway.

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