For as long as Mt. Washington residents can remember, there has been talk about developing Elyria Canyon, a pristine hillside that city planners say is one of the largest residentially zoned parcels left untouched in Northeast Los Angeles.
In the past, developers were kept at bay by the opposition of local residents, the zoning changes required to build a large project and a host of other city-imposed environmental and safety requirements.
But the battle is heating up again, and this time the outcome is far from certain.
D & D Development of Brea has proposed building a 100-unit condominium project on 35 of Elyria Canyon's roughly 50 acres. The project would entail removing all the vegetation and natural contours on 16 acres, according to a preliminary draft of the environmental impact report. Up to 500,000 cubic feet of earth could be displaced.
The news sent Mt. Washington activists scurrying to mount an offensive, and residents felt they had won a definitive victory March 25 when Los Angeles City Council approved a citywide ordinance limiting hillside building, based on steepness of slope. Under the new law, D & D would have been allowed to build 35 or fewer units, according to George Fitzgerrell, land-use chairman of the Mt. Washington Homeowners' Assn.
So it was with some horror that residents learned last week that the ordinance exempts D & D's Mt. Washington project. According to Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. Susan D. Pfann, the hillside slope-density ordinance goes into effect May 10 and applies only to projects for which the city has not received a complete application by that date. D & D filed its application March 26, said city planner Gary Morris.
"We're disappointed," said Randall Wiseman, president of the Mt. Washington Homeowners' Assn. "It will kill that hillside. It's going to be just a nightmare."
Lucille Lemmon, a former association president, said the group may ask the Center for Law in the Public Interest to investigate what she calls a loophole in the new law. She said D & D's application should not have been deemed complete because the firm has not yet submitted a completed environmental impact report.
But city planner Morris said D & D has submitted all documents required by law, including a tract map that outlines the proposed subdivisions, a grading report and a flood-hazard report.
Mt. Washington, which perches above Highland Park and Glassell Park, lies 10 minutes from downtown Los Angeles but seems light years removed from the urban bustle. Rustic homes perch on hillsides and narrow roads are lined with thick vegetation. At night, owls hoot from tall trees.
The proposed Elyria Canyon development would carve 100 one- and two-story condominiums in cluster configurations on 17 acres and leave the balance as open space. The property is bounded roughly by Sunny Heights Drive on the north, Elyria Drive, Mt. Washington Drive, San Rafael Avenue on the east and Avenue 37 and Killarney Avenue on the southwest. Bridgeport Drive, Winmar Driveand Alder Drive dead-end into the property at its western boundary.
Members of the homeowners' group contend that D & D's project will further overload the area's already strained infrastructure. They point out that nearby schools are near or above their enrollment capacity and that the neighborhood's narrow streets are not equipped to handle the up to 900 extra car trips a day that the project might generate. In addition, they claim that grading during construction will destroy trees, flatten hillsides and cause soil erosion.
D & D did not return repeated phone calls from The Times. But, according to documents filed with the city Planning Department, the firm has applied for a zone change and an amendment to the community's plan that will allow it to build 100 units. Zoning now allows a maximum density of one unit per acre, or a total of 35 units.
D & D plans to call the project Sycamore Glen and expects to sell individual units for between $100,000 and $150,000, according to planning documents. D & D has also proposed building a 28-foot wide private road through the property that would provide adequate fire department access. The firm would also pay part of the costs of enlarging water mains and putting in sewers.
D & D originally proposed building 140 units, and earlier plans by other developers called for as many as 184 condominiums. D & D has said in the past that it needs to build at least 100 units to make the project a financial success.
But Mt. Washington activists question that statement and want the city to consider several alternatives, including sizing down the project to between 22 and 50 units.
The Hillside Federation, a citywide organization of about 40 grass-roots homeowner groups, also opposes any plan to build more than one unit per acre on the site, said incoming President Bennett Kayser.
A less practical but environmentally superior alternative, according to the draft EIR, suggests rezoning Elyria Canyon as open space and turning it into a nature preserve. Patrick T. Houlihan, director of the Southwest Museum in Mt. Washington, has expressed interest in administering such a project. The Los Angeles Audubon Society, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the Los Angeles County Department of Arboreta and Botanical Gardens also support the nature preserve idea. Funding, however, would be difficult to obtain, city planners concluded.
The final version of the EIR is expected to be complete in several months, said Horace Trammel, a planner for the city's environmental review section. The decision on whether to grant the zone change and plan amendment will probably be made after public hearings this summer, planning officials said.
Mt. Washington residents have maintained that D & D's application should not have been accepted until the EIR was complete, which would have placed it under the limitations of the slope density ordinance. They have expressed concern that the city may have allowed the developer to circumvent the intent of the law.
The disclosure that D & D gave a $500 political contribution to Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alatorre on March 23 also heightened community concern about whether Alatorre will support their efforts to cut the project's size when the matter goes before the full City Council, said Lemmon. Although Alatorre represents part of Mt. Washington, the proposed Elyria Canyon project lies just inside Gloria Molina's 1st Council District.
Lemmon and Wiseman noted that Alatorre was the only council member who withheld his vote on the hillside ordinance during an initial March 25 vote by the City Council. They said they felt a unanimous vote might have sped the ordinance through more quickly.
In an interview, Alatorre said he withheld his vote so he could meet with Mt. Washington residents to clarify several amendments to the ordinance. Alatorre also pointed out that he supported the ordinance when it returned to the council for a final vote the following week.
City records also show that City Councilwoman Pat Russell sent a letter to the city Planning Department on March 20 asking them to expedite D & D's application.
Russell could not be reached for comment.