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Hunt for Errors : Property Maps Are Tea Leaves in Zoning, Plan Conflicts

Times Staff Writer

Peering through reading glasses and wearing a John Houseman scowl, Louise Frankel was making the City of Los Angeles’ first maps of its muddled zoning situation win her approval the old fashioned way. With her Thursday in Room 110 of Van Nuys City Hall was Irma Dobbyn, whose look was equally severe as the two grandmothers scanned the maps east and then west along Ventura Boulevard.

As if lying in ambush, Frankel spoke in a hush. “We’re looking for errors,” she said, turning her gaze north along Reseda Boulevard.

The scene, give or take some details, was repeated dozens of times in Van Nuys and other city offices in Los Angeles this week, as real estate developers and brokers, homeowner activists and just plain homeowners showed up for their clearest glimpses yet into the fate of their neighborhoods and their land.

108 Maps Prepared

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The tea leaves they read were 108 maps the city completed two weeks ago. They show areas in which the city’s zoning clashes with its General Plan--a situation that has prompted bitter debate between developers and community groups wary of growth.

One advocate of redevelopment in Reseda came by with her camera, complete with flash, and started snapping. A heavy-set real estate broker was there filling out an impressive looking document, labeled “Property Profile” in big black letters.

A real state broker and a community activist from North Hollywood got into an argument that threatened to become nasty.

Such is the emotion generated by the problem that prompted the maps, the disparity between the city’s General Plan, developed piecemeal over 20 years, and the zoning that frequently does not comply with density limits and other conditions set by the plan.

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Last year, 42 homeowner groups--including the Tarzana group formed in the 1960s by Frankel and Dobbyn--brought suit in Los Angeles Superior Court asking that zoning be brought into conformity with the General Plan, which is more restrictive on development.

Court Approval Due

The two sides reached a settlement of the suit May 31, with the city promising to bring the zoning of about 200,000 disputed parcels in line with the General Plan by 1988. Court approval of the settlement is expected any day.

On April 4, the City Council imposed a freeze on new building permits for the 200,000 parcels caught up in the dispute--25% of the property in the cities.

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The maps on display Thursday in Van Nuys were the first to show the double status of the parcels under the General Plan and the zoning. The affected parcels, an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 of them in the San Fernando Valley, were shaded dark blue and stamped with two configurations of numbers and letters showing the conflicting guidelines for their development: RD3 and R1 for the same parcel, for example.

The maps won’t become official until the city planning commission approves them, which it is expected to do at a meeting June 27. Then, the huge blue and white sheets of paper will become the foundation for hearings and meetings in which city officials will examine the conflicts, community by community and parcel by parcel. City planners started work on the maps about four months ago, said Bob Sutton, a senior planner in charge of the mapping project. The planning commission decided to put them on public display to give people with a personal stake in them a chance to hunt for problems and omissions. Everyone who comes to look at the maps is given several blue forms on which to enter comments.

“In some cases, I’m sure we have made mistakes with what we have done,” Sutton said.

‘Traveling Roadshow’

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The maps have been displayed all week in Room 551 in City Hall downtown. But copies were also taken on what one city planner called “a traveling roadshow” for one-day viewings in city offices in San Pedro, West Los Angeles and, on Thursday, in Van Nuys.

Sutton said that 70 to 100 people had seen the maps by the end of Thursday, about 25 of them at Van Nuys.

The exhibition downtown will continue Friday in Room 551, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

By then, Frankel and Dobbyn said, they hope to have solved the riddle of a large block on Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana which they were horrified to discover Thursday has been zoned to allow buildings up to six stories high. They said they are certain an ordinance they helped push through the city council in the late 1970s banned anything over three stories in the area.

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‘I’m Sure There’s a Mistake’

“I’m sure, I’m absolutely sure there’s a mistake here,” Frankel said to Dobbyn. For several minutes, Frankel lectured on how six-story buildings on the block would violently aggravate traffic.

“I am sure it’s a mistake,” Dobbyn said, starting to write on one of the blue forms. She quickly filled it with a detailed description of where the block was and what they thought was wrong. The two women pointed to lot 93 of tract 15675 on one map and shook their heads as they recalled a homeowner who tried to turn his house into offices without applying for a zoning change.

A Northridge real estate broker named Carol Moore was also in Room 110. Her head bobbed agitatedly as she gave a brief speech criticizing the homeowners’ suit against the city and the maps that were its outcome.

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“Development means jobs,” Moore said. “Don’t people understand that? If the city does not have that development, it will hurt everyone.”

“The people it will hurt are people like you, the ones who make the money from these properties,” replied Al Warrens, a member of a North Hollywood homeowners’ association that had joined in the lawsuit against the city.

‘The Greed Breed’

Warrens was in Van Nuys for the same reason as Frankel and Dobbyn. “The developers are the greed breed, that’s what they are,” Warrens said, pointing at Moore, his voice rising.

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“You can’t stop a city from growing,” Moore countered. “It grows. A city grows.”

“Yes, but growth has to be controlled,” Warrens said, turning to leave.

Moore’s friend, Helen Gabriel, a real estate broker from Sherman Oaks, was less outspoken, but nodded her agreement with Moore. She lamented the case of a client who she said would probably be unable to sell profitably two 13,000 square-foot parcels whose zoning seemed likely to change, according to the maps.

Before the controversy, the parcels’ zoning had permitted a dwelling for every 800 square feet. To conform with the General Plan, the maps showed the zoning would have to change to one dwelling for every 1,500 square feet.

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“It’s worth one half of what it was,” Gabriel said. Before the building moratorium, she said, her client had sold one of the parcels for $180,000. But the client got stuck with the other two, she said.

Although telling the story clearly saddened her, she brightened when asked about the maps. “I’ve seen some other plans with some of this information on them but these are very clear and large. I can really tell what’s happening,” she said.

Jean Cross also stopped by Room 110. She and her husband, Hal, were curious about what kinds of zoning the General Plan dictated for the street behind their house in North Hollywood. The maps predicted a change from single-family homes to multiple dwellings.

Likes Apartments

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“I’m happy about this because I like the way apartments look a lot more than the single homes in North Hollywood,” Cross said. “A lot of them are older and run down. Don’t put down where I live because my neighbors will bomb me for saying this,” she added, laughing.

“Zoning is boring until it affects you,” said Bill Severson, a Granada Hills real estate broker who learned at Van Nuys City Hall Thursday that a piece of land in which a client was interested probably wasn’t worth the trouble any more. He settled into a chair near the entrance to Room 110, looking somewhat overwhelmed after poring over the maps.

Frankel and Dobbyn never seemed to tire, however. Even after finding the apparent problem with the height zoning on Ventura Boulevard, they kept at it. “These maps are really very good,” Dobbyn said.

“Human error is not unheard of,” Frankel said, her eyes moving slowly across the paper.

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