Residents of bucolic Sullivan Canyon in Brentwood have filed a suit against the city of Los Angeles, contending that officials violated state and local laws in approving plans to remove dozens of protected live oak and sycamore trees and build two 15,000- square-foot houses on a 12-acre hillside property at the end of Old Ranch Road.
Sullivan Canyon has been nominated for the California Register of Historical Resources. Old Ranch Road, which winds through the canyon, is a rare equestrian pocket of Los Angeles, where corrals line the tree-shaded street and rustic wooden signs warn of "Horses & Children at Play." The area boasts several midcentury ranch homes designed by noted architect Cliff May.
Residents were unaware of the construction plans, the lawsuit alleges, until late September, when bulldozers began knocking down old oak and sycamore trees. The suit's backers — including Barbara Williams, the wife of political activist Tom Hayden, and the Sullivan Canyon Property Owners Assn. — say that the city failed to follow rules limiting hillside building, examine potentially harmful environmental effects under California law and notify neighbors about the project and its scope.
Among agencies named were the Department of City Planning, the Department of Building and Safety and the Board of Public Works, which approved the tree removal. The Los Angeles city attorney's office said it had not yet seen the complaint, which was filed Wednesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
The lawsuit alleges that the project has already damaged Sullivan Canyon Creek and will require the grading and filling of 166,000 cubic yards of dirt on the surrounding hillsides — enough "to bury a football field 33 feet deep, including the end zones."
The suit asks the court to withdraw the tree removal and building permits and to require the developers to prepare an environmental impact report and comply with the city's latest rules for hillside building.
"The lawsuit is about constitutional due process rights for the community," said Sara Nichols, a plaintiff who lives on Old Ranch Road.
Fred Gaines, an attorney who represents the real estate partnerships that own the site, said he had not yet seen the lawsuit, but added: "We're confident that the permits will be upheld.... These are some of Los Angeles' wealthiest residents trying to stop someone from having a house right next door to theirs." He said he did not know who would live in the houses.
Councilman Mike Bonin said the tree removal "demonstrated a lot of holes in the city's process." He has introduced a motion to tighten rules about public notice in cases in which old-growth trees in sensitive habitat areas are at stake. "This is a significant project that has caused serious environmental impacts," he told building and safety commissioners at a recent meeting. If the project is allowed to continue, he said, it "threatens to cause additional damage to this hillside neighborhood and its residents."