A California court Friday threw up a roadblock to the vast compound a Saudi Arabian prince hopes to build in Benedict Canyon, a project opposed by the billionaires next door and hundreds of residents nearby.
The California appellate court's decision that the proposed residential complex must go through an environmental review marks a victory for neighbors, who have argued that the project at the end of Tower Lane was illegal because it did not provide an alternative route for the arrival of emergency vehicles and the escape of residents in case of a fire.
"A secondary access road was a condition of Tower Lane's approval," the ruling stated. Yet no secondary access is outlined in the plans, which the court described as "...six retaining walls, four houses, three water features, two above-ground garages and two auxiliary buildings."
In the 26-page ruling, a three-judge panel in Los Angeles rejected the applicant's assertion that the city must allow construction to begin because the project complied with all applicable building and zoning codes. The panel also upheld a trial court's conclusion that Los Angeles' planning director may require an environmental review.
Planning Director Michael LoGrande said Monday that the area was difficult for emergency personnel to reach. The ruling, he said, gives him "the right to protect the city of Los Angeles."
Benjamin M. Reznik, an attorney for the prince, said his client might seek a planning department waiver that would allow him to complete the project without the secondary access road. Reznik said such a request would be "narrowly tailored" and would not necessarily require a full environmental impact report.
LoGrande said the planning department would review any waiver request and determine the appropriate level of review under the California Environmental Quality Act.
"It could be anything from an EIR to something of a lesser degree," LoGrande said. "It's too early to say."
Tower Lane Properties is the corporate owner of the 5.2-acre estate at the end of the private cul-de-sac, but the ultimate owner is Prince Abdulaziz ibn Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz al Saud, a son of the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
FOR THE RECORD
Feb. 17, 2:10 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misidentified Prince Abdulaziz ibn Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz al Saud as Abdulaziz ibn Abdulaziz al Saud.
The project totals about 60,000 square feet on three parcels, down from an initial 85,000 square feet. The applicant had initially proposed that a set of hillside stairs stand in as secondary access for firefighters.
The Tower Lane project first came under scrutiny four years ago when billionaire Bruce Karsh and his wife, Martha, whose estate is next door, learned of its scale and established a coalition of opponents, including residents and Councilman Paul Koretz.
At the time, Martha Karsh described the proposed compound as akin to "building a Wal-Mart in the heart of a quiet residential neighborhood."
Bruce Karsh is co-founder of Oaktree Capital Management, a leading Los Angeles investment firm that holds an 18% stake in Tribune Publishing Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers.
In its ruling, the court said: "The Los Angeles Municipal Code provides that waiver or modification of a street approval condition ... must be obtained from the planning department. Tower admits it has refused to seek a waiver or modification," claiming that "public input is irrelevant."
The ruling "is a huge relief to the residents of Benedict Canyon," said Michael Eisenberg, who lives near the prince's property. "The court has now made it clear the prince can no longer avoid critically important fire safety measures ... without following the proper public process and doing environmental review."