Can Sister Elsie Support Bigger Homes?

By Michael J. ARVIZU

The drive up Sister Elsie Drive in Tujunga is, at best, a complicated series of twists and turns, the result of the narrow and steep hillside the road traverses.

Signs on the drive instruct drivers to yield for uphill traffic. Indeed, cars traveling in opposing directions only have inches to spare on this narrow road that, in less than a quarter mile, gains about 175 feet of elevation, according to City of Los Angeles engineering maps.

The road itself suffers from years of erosion, and is pockmarked with potholes.

Homes on Sister Elsie Drive afford unhindered views of the Crescenta Valley and the surrounding chaparral-covered mountains below. Birds chirp in the distance, and the occasional squirrel flitters by.

According to the Hundred Peaks Section hiking blog, the name of the street alludes to a Catholic nun named Sister Else (later Elsie) who died while nursing the victims of a smallpox epidemic. Nearby Mount Lukens was named after her for a time. But this story is unsubstantiated.

Today, the area is zoned for single-family housing. Most sit snug on the steep hillside, and there is not much room for additional structures or modification of existing homes.

For the last several months, residents in this neighborhood on the outskirts of Tujunga, about a mile from the La Crescenta border, have been concerned about a new development being proposed in the 6300 block of W. Sister Elsie Drive.

Residents say that, while they have no issue with development of the hillside, papers filed with the city of Los Angeles North Valley Area Planning Commission reveal that the people behind the proposed development have filed zoning variances in order to overturn statutes set forth by the Baseline Hillside Ordinance, or BHO, and Los Angeles Municipal Code, in order to build much bigger structures than what the steep hillside can support.

These variances, residents say, will compromise the stability of the hillside, cause a traffic nightmare on the narrow street, and set a precedent for developers to skirt the rules and go against statutes set by the city of Los Angeles.

“We don’t think this is advancing the objectives of the hillside ordinance,” said Dean Sherer, Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council Land Use Committee chairperson. “Why would [the city of Los Angeles] undermine or subvert their own legislation that they passed? Is it because they feel these applicants should [be allowed to build] larger [structures] than what the law permits? Because they’re nice guys?”

The BHO was passed by the city’s Department of City Planning in 2011, and establishes guidelines and restrictions for construction on the city’s hillsides.

According to papers filed with the city’s zoning administrator, a variance has been proposed by the developers to build a 2,400 square-foot single-family dwelling and attached two-car garage. The new project can only support a residential floor area of 1,147 square feet, or about 18% of the lot size, according to the city of Los Angeles comprehensive zoning plan. The average size of homes in the immediate neighborhood is 1,429 square feet, according to the Sunland-Tujunga Alliance, Inc., a group of residential stakeholders.

“We just want the hillside ordinances to be followed,” said Sister Elsie Drive resident Kathy Henderson.

An additional four variances have been filed by the developer; these include building on an adjacent roadway that is 16 feet and narrows to 9 feet (municipal code calls for the adjacent roadway to be at least 20 feet); reducing the front yard setback to 0 feet (municipal code calls for setback to be at least five feet); building to a height of 36 feet (municipal code calls for a height of no more than 30 feet) and filing a notice of intent to adopt a Mitigated Negative Declaration, which states  that a project will not have a significant effect on the environment and does not require the preparation of an environmental impact report.

“This doesn’t conform with the existing development regulations of that area,” said Sherer. “The basis of our appeal is that the applicant in this case wants to build a bigger home than the law allows.”

The developer is Ali Akbar Mahdi, a professor at California State University, Northridge, and College of the Canyons. Efforts to reach Mahdi for comment were unsuccessful Thursday. But residents who have spoken to him say he intends to build a home where he can retire.

Residents are scheduled to make their final appeal of the zoning administrator’s decision to approve the variances during a meeting of the North Valley Area Planning Commission at 4:30 p.m. today, Thursday, at the Marvin Braude Constituent Service Center, at 6262 Van Nuys Blvd. in Van Nuys.