Around Town: Dealing with homeowner-builders

A fellow in our neighborhood fancies himself a builder. The only problem is that he skips the permit process. Over the years, he's received stop orders, then pulled a belated permit and been allowed to continue.

A few months ago, he built a room on top of his roof. There are three levels below the roof, so he created what looks like a fourth story, visible to the neighbors. It was not visible from the street level.

In March, someone else (not me) complained to the city. The city sent staff out to the property to investigate the complaint that the gentleman was building an addition without a permit. The city decided that the work was merely cosmetic.

A few weeks later, the lights came on. We wrote to the city, saying that we were “wondering” about the “fourth story room, with 14 high beam lights on it's new roofline, was recently constructed on top of the house.” We were perplexed because we never received any notice of a directors review or hearing.

We asked, “Is a fourth story permitted under the ordinance?”

What drew our attention to the new room were the 14 lights, over-illuminating the exterior. They were as bright as Wilshire Boulevard at night.

La Cañada code prohibits such bright lights. Section 11.11. 050 (E)(5)(e) says that the “intensity of the lights as measured across property lines shall not be more than one foot-candle above ambient.”

The city said they'd look into it. The next week, the city said that there was a permit for exterior work, but the work at that location went beyond the scope of work listed on the permits. There was a stairway to the top level and additions inside the house.

The city issued a stop order. But there was a disclaimer. The city said that the fourth-story addition is only a third-story addition, even though there are three levels below it.

Things stayed calm for a while, then, a few weeks ago, construction started again, then stopped. And now, the fourth story room is still there, but the lights are off.

The city says, “With regard to the rooftop observation deck the property owner is in the process of obtaining plans to submit for Planning Department approval.”

There was no reference to the new room built on top of “the rooftop observation deck.” There was no reference to the Klieg lights.

Is this how it works? Build without a permit, get caught, then “legalize the addition.”

This isn't the only situation in town. There's a few other homeowner-builders around town who try to do what they want. Money? Hubris? It's hard to comprehend.

Once in a blue moon, the city cracks down. Last March, some homeowners were required to tear down some unpermitted improvements. (“Upgrades to La Cañada home must come down,” by Sara Cardine, March 6.) The mayor called the improvements “egregious.”

Is “egregious” the test for enforcement? The egregious level probably rises the closer you live to the guy that builds without a permit. Hardly seems fair to the folks who follow the law.


ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident and an attorney with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @anitabrenner.

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