With mansionization marching on in some Los Angeles neighborhoods and city officials saying stricter regulations are still a year and a half away, some vexed residents are taking matters into their own hands.
Beverlywood resident Pam Roberts-Malay said she was moved to act after a new, bigger home was built on a modest lot next door, blocking her treasured view of the Century City skyline with an eyeful of gray wall.
The new home, roughly twice the size of the old one, obscured the western sunlight and scenery she had loved. So she gave her neighbors an eyeful of their own.
Big signs across the western windows of her Cresta Drive home proclaim in block letters "Your house destroyed our privacy" and "Your house blocks our sunlight." Roberts-Malay posted the signs after failing to hear back from the owners or persuade her homeowner association that the house should not have been allowed under neighborhood restrictions.
"I am not the type that likes to feel powerless," Roberts-Malay said.
The owners of the neighboring home, Ezra and Aviva Sagi, declined to be interviewed. In a September letter to Roberts-Malay and her husband, the Sagis' attorney said they were seeking a temporary restraining order, arguing that the couple were "deliberately seeking to annoy them" and making it harder for them to sell the vacant house.
Such squabbles represent the latest round in the long-standing tug of war over how far the rights of L.A. homeowners — and their neighbors — extend.
Los Angeles leaders say they want to tighten restrictions on mansionization, but citywide fixes are expected to take at least 18 months to allow for repeated hearings and environmental review, according to city officials.
As the gears of city bureaucracy grind on, irritated Angelenos are planning protests at open houses of fresh "McMansions" near Beverly Grove, and passing out tip sheets on how to report suspected building violations at the bigger, often boxier houses that irritate them in the La Brea Hancock area.
In North Beverly Grove — an epicenter of the mansionization backlash — the frustration has even shown up on the fences of demolished or soon-to-be demolished homes, some of which have been spray-painted with slogans or festooned with bags of dog poop, said longtime resident Clark Carlton, an outspoken opponent of mansionization.
Carlton said he and his allies don't condone the destruction of private property. "But people are frustrated because they feel like they've done everything they can do legally," he said.
Online discussions about mansionization on the neighborhood website NextDoor have escalated into tense arguments over the rights of homeowners and neighbors. People living in the bigger houses lamented by neighborhood activists say they should have the right to build the more spacious homes they want for growing families and other needs.
"It's not that anybody wants to purposely rob people of light and air and sun," said Tamar Andrews, who has lived in Beverly Grove for decades. "We have bigger homes because lifestyles have changed."
Her family expanded their home to roughly 3,600 square feet to accommodate their four children after discovering that the foundation of their existing house had shifted, she said. After construction started, letters began to pepper the fencing around the property, Andrews said — "hateful mail saying, 'You're going to destroy the neighborhood. You and your developer friends need to get out of here.'"
"They assume anyone tearing down their house is a developer looking for a quick buck," she said.
Local politicians and planning officials say that L.A.'s rules against mansionization — meant to prevent bloated houses from being built on modest lots — have fallen short. The restrictions, put in place six years ago, curb the size of new and renovated homes based on lot size. But the rules also include "bonuses" of 20% or 30% more space than otherwise allowed.
The Cresta Drive house in Beverlywood, for example, got a 20% bonus because of the way its floors were proportioned. Builders can also get extra space if they use environmentally friendly methods or scale their façade to a certain ratio. Critics also point out that the city excludes some parts of houses from its calculations, including as much as 400 square feet of "covered parking area."
City Councilman Paul Koretz has vowed to wipe out such loopholes and tighten the rules. But planning officials say it won't happen right away.
They say they need time to check compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, hold repeated public hearings, get language drafted by city lawyers and give neighborhood councils a chance to vet the amended rules. It doesn't help that the planning department is still rebuilding its staff after an early retirement program reduced its workforce by a third, city officials said.
In the meantime, city planners have suggested temporary rules to curb demolitions and give residents "breathing room" in neighborhoods that have mobilized against mansionization, including Sunset Square, Studio City and North Beverly Grove.
The Los Angeles chapter of the Building Industry Assn. is worried about those moves, saying that the temporary restrictions could "result in a flurry of lawsuits." Homeowners have not been given enough warning about the restrictions, which "will immediately remove property owner rights," the group's chief executive, Tim Piasky, said.
Planning officials say the temporary restrictions would immediately address the problem in mansionization hot spots: desirable areas with older, smaller homes targeted for teardowns.
Demolitions of single-family homes and duplexes dropped during and immediately after the recession, but have rebounded in the years since: More than 1,300 permits to tear down such structures were issued last year in Los Angeles, compared with roughly 700 three years earlier, according to the Department of Building and Safety.
But the temporary restrictions fail to satisfy many neighborhood activists, who argue that the city is singling out a few areas for protection while dragging its feet on fixing the bigger problem.
"It creates a situation of haves and have-nots," said Traci Considine, whose Faircrest Heights neighborhood has been recommended to get temporary curbs on home demolitions. "If you do a few Band-Aids for a few select neighborhoods, the target is just bigger on the backs of the neighborhoods that aren't protected."
One of the "unprotected" neighborhoods would be Beverlywood, where Roberts-Malay posted her signs. The Beverlywood Homes Assn. issued a letter asking her to immediately remove them.
Roberts-Malay refused, saying she was exercising her 1st Amendment rights. The association ultimately decided not to take any action against her. Roberts-Malay and her attorney said the Sagis also stopped pursuing their legal claim.
Instead of taking down the signs, Roberts-Malay sent out for more. The slogans now speckle a few of the neatly trimmed lawns along Cresta Drive: "No More McMansions in Beverlywood."
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