By Michael J. ARVIZU
An appeal by Sunland and Tujunga residents to prevent construction of a new home on what neighbors say is an unsuitable hillside on Sister Elsie Drive in Tujunga was denied by the city of Los Angeles on July 17.
The North Valley Area Planning Commission (NVAPC) voted unanimously to reject the appeal of a decision made by city of Los Angeles zoning administrator R. Nicholas Brown to allow construction of a single-family dwelling with an attached car garage in the 6340 to 6446 block of W. Sister Elsie Drive.
While residents said they do not oppose construction or further development on the Sister Elsie Drive hillside, this current project, they said, skirts laws set forth in a Baseline Hillside Ordinance [BHO] passed by the city in 2011 by allowing a larger home to be built than is allowed in the ordinance.
“This project and its implications go far beyond just the Sister Elsie project itself,” said Dean Sherer, Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council Land Use Committee chairperson. “The approval of variances for hillside projects for our area undermines the Baseline Hillside Ordinance and makes a mockery of the work of those who created those ordinances.”
Furthermore, residents added that the project will set the precedent for more oversized structures, putting at risk the safety of people living in the neighborhood by blocking access with construction trucks to a road located in a high fire risk area, destabilizing a sensitive hillside, and further deteriorating the roadway.
The road suffers from years of erosion, and is pockmarked by potholes.
“You reallocate and ignore all ordinances. You give all these variances, so what’s the meaning of the ordinances?” asked Tujunga resident Haroutune Armenian, who lives on Sister Elsie Drive. “What’s the meaning of the ordinances? The city is covering its back. That’s what the whole story is all about.”
Armenian refers to the multitude of variances that have been granted to the developer, Ali Akbar Mahdi, a professor at California State University, Northridge, and College of the Canyons, to build a house for his retirement years.
“In this case, we’re seeing our hillside regulations tossed away, tossed to the side, and variances being handed out like after dinner mints,” said Joe Barrett, Sunland resident and primary appellant to the zoning administrator’s decision. “We’re very concerned about that.”
But zoning administrator Brown said only one variance has been issued for the whole project. The other so-called variances are Zoning Administrator’s Determinations, or ZADs, Brown said, which are also called discretionary actions, as they are granted at the discretion of the administrator.
“They mix up the type of discretionary actions. The only thing that truly is a variance, in this case, is the size of the dwelling,” said Brown after the Planning Commission meeting. “I can say there have been no other variances issued in this area.”
According to Planning Commission documents, the ZADs for this project apply to the dwelling height (36 feet instead of 30 feet); the yard setback (0 feet from five feet); and the determination allowing for construction fronting on a street that is less than 20 feet wide, and less than 20 feet wide from the driveway apron to the end of the hillside boundary.
These determinations, Brown said, are issued on the basis of compatibility. For example, the front yard ZAD allowing a setback of 0 feet was granted in order to accommodate access to a “road that is substandard,” Brown said.
“They were put there, in my opinion, as a guideline; and things change and guidelines have to change, because situations change,” said NVAPC President L. Richard Leyner. “You can’t put rules in and throw out everybody’s rights.”
Planning commissioner Veronica Padilla inquired as to why the Planning Commission was addressing this project once again, since the commission had already given its approval in 2011 when the original building permits were filed under the old hillside ordinances, according to NVAPC documents.
The city of Los Angeles had previously approved the project, Brown said, but the city’s planning department and bureau of engineering could not make a decision on the type of street improvements to be made in front of the property and whether those improvements should be street standard or driveway standard. Brown told the commissioners it had been decided that the improvements would be driveway standard.
By the time a decision was made in 2012, Mahdi’s permit had expired, requiring him to reapply under the new ordinances. At his reapplication, the approval was appealed again by residents.
“We took too long to make that decision, and he lost his right to his building permit,” Brown said in open forum. “He had to reapply, which triggered losing his right to prior discretionary action. That’s why we’re here.”
According to the project description, Brown’s determination to allow construction to proceed is based on little change in use occurring between the old and new ordinances, specifically changes in location, size, massing, height, or grading. Furthermore, no environmental impacts have been found in grading, visual, or public safety.
For his part, Mahdi said his project is no risk to the neighborhood, and follows strict guidelines set forth by the city in both the old and new hillside ordinances. He argued that his new home will not be on the actual hillside that cannot support his “oversized” home as residents say, but below it.
“I am trying to propose to build a property on the safest side of the land, safer to the neighborhood, safer to the road,” Mahdi said in open forum. “They [residents] are above me. My house is going to be below.”
Speaking directly to the Planning Commission and to about 25 Sunland and Tujunga residential stakeholders attending the meeting, Mahdi asked point blank for an opinion on who truly is at risk: the residents who live above him, or himself, who will live below homes that could potentially “fall on me,” he said.
“Who is a danger to whom?” he asked.
“We’re talking about your construction trucks!” Sister Elsie Drive resident Kathy Henderson shot back.
According to Mahdi, construction trucks will only be used for the project for no more than 45 days and will not be used every day.
Tujunga resident Martin Lin lives next to the proposed building. He said he doesn’t mind that construction is taking place and felt it is a welcome sight given the recent economic downturn.
“I have nothing against them,” he said. “They made an investment. Come on, let’s build!”
As far as the grievances of the community, Lin calls them “selfish.”
“They’re just so protective. They don’t want to share. What’s the point?” he asked. “My new neighbors are highly educated; they’re nice people.”
Meanwhile, residents vow to continue opposing the project and will further appeal to the Los Angeles City Council on a yet to be determined date.
“It’s not over yet,” said Barrett.