Rosalee Barton's design for a two-story, five-bedroom English Tudor-style home met all the city zoning and building requirements.
But before construction could begin six months ago, Barton, an Arcadia real estate broker who plans to live in the home, had to get the approval of the architectural review board of her neighborhood homeowners association.
The Santa Anita Village homeowners' review board unanimously rejected her plans, saying that the house was too massive and would not blend in with the neighboring 40- to 45-year-old, one-story, ranch-style homes.
Barton's proposal was turned down three times by the board before she finally won approval to build a house with a revised design.
Out of 'Harmony'
"No one is against two-story homes," said Gary Kovacic, the design review unit's chairman. "No one is against new buildings. No one is against Victorians. We are just against buildings that are not in keeping with the harmony of the neighborhood."
Barton's plight reflects problems that some Arcadia builders and real estate people say they face in trying to build new homes in this quiet bedroom community. They say that while they try to meet the demand for larger homes, architectural review boards fight to prevent any dramatic change in the neighborhoods they are set up to represent.
The issue has attracted unusually large crowds to City Council and Planning Commission meetings and has been the subject of dozens of letters to the editor of the local newspaper.
After her first rejection by the Santa Anita Village board, Barton revised her plans, scaling down her home-to-be from 3,600 to 3,400 square feet. The plans were rejected again, and this time the board cited "incompatibility."
She came back a third time with still another set of blueprints calling for a four-bedroom, ranch-style home of 3,200 square feet.
Those plans were finally accepted by the board but were rejected by the City Planning Commission, to which several neighbors had appealed, complaining that the proposed home remained incompatible with the neighborhood.
Approval Long, Expensive
Barton faced the review board for a fourth time last month. This time, her plans were accepted with minor revisions.
It took Barton six months and $3,500 to get her plans approved.
"I guess I finally wore them out," she said. "But they are still not happy."
Neither is Barton. "I feel like my home was designed by everybody else," she said.
All new structures or home additions within the jurisdiction of a homeowners association must be approved by an architectural review board before construction can begin. If plans are rejected, the ruling can be appealed to the Planning Commission. If the commission rejects the appeal, it can be taken to the City Council, which has the final word.
In most cases, the five review boards in Arcadia are made up of members of homeowners associations. They are among the few design review boards in the San Gabriel Valley that are made up of volunteers instead of members appointed by city councils or planning commissions.
Mayor Pro Tem Robert Harbicht said the City Council supports the boards, known from their initials as ARBs, but also sympathizes with builders and real estate brokers.
"It's a funny situation," Harbicht said, "because the ARBs form another layer of approval that builders have to go through, and sometimes their decisions can be subjective."
Kovacic, of the Santa Anita Village board, said it is his group's job to "maintain compatibility, harmony and proportion in the area."
Steve Phillipi, president of the Santa Anita Village homeowners association, said he is not against development. "I just think it should be controlled," he said.
However, some real estate agents and builders complain that it is nearly impossible to build a home in Arcadia that will blend well with existing homes.
"How are you going to be compatible with something 40 to 50 years old? You've got to keep up with the times," Barton said, stressing that there is a demand for larger homes.
Robert Patterson, an architect whose plans for a two-story, four-bedroom home were rejected by the same review board earlier this year, agreed with Barton, saying that many prospective buyers want homes 3,000 square feet and larger.
"Eventually that will be the size of homes in the area," he said. "If (homeowners) want their land value to increase, they will have to allow change, and that change will come with larger homes."
The Santa Anita board cited incompatibility in rejecting Patterson's design. Chris Bade, president of Chris Construction Co., who was to build the new home, appealed to the Planning Commission but was rejected.
Bade plans to take his appeal to the City Council. "We are going to fight this all the way," he said.
The builders and real estate agents also complain that review board decisions are based on subjective criteria such as style and compatibility and that the boards do not offer enough in the way of specific criticism.
"They were too subjective and too evasive," Barton said. "What do they mean when they say 'too massive?' "
Barton said that review board meetings sometimes run as long as three or four hours. "And they don't tell you what they want," she said. "They just deny your requests."
Fred Jahnke, chairman of the Santa Anita Oaks Assn.'s review agency, defended the boards, saying that without them, builders could construct homes of up to 9,000 square feet and still be in compliance with city ordinances.
"We are not here to please speculators," he said. "We are here to please the people of the neighborhood."
In an attempt to provide builders and designers with specific guidelines, the Planning Commission in October suggested changes that would restrict the size and dimensions of new homes. But the proposal was criticized by builders, who showed up in force at a Planning Commission meeting.
After a heated two-hour hearing, the Planning Commission voted to delay a decision and asked builders and real estate agents to submit comments and recommendations to the city planning office.
A number of residents support the limits proposed by the Planning Commission.
For example, the Kaylor Whiteheads expressed their distaste for larger homes in a letter to the City Council and asked it to approve changes that would put restrictions on the construction of large homes.
"With all respect, how much longer are the members of the City Council and the Planning Commission going to permit the bastardization of our residential neighborhoods with the proliferation of tasteless, bizarre monuments to excess and vulgarity?" the Whiteheads asked.
However, Phillip James Romani, who has designed and built several houses in Arcadia, takes quite a different view. He said that larger homes raise property values in neighborhoods in which they are built. "These people aren't aware that they are sitting on a gold mine," Romani said.
Several of the homes Romani has built have been criticized by architectural review boards, which contend that his designs are "way too dramatic for the neighborhood."
He said that some residents "seem a bit jealous" because "any structure next door will make their homes look bad."
Kovacic said the main concern for homeowners is not the rise or fall of property values. "There is no question that the people in the neighborhood care more about their quality of life than they do the financial impact."
Jahnke, whose review board has rejected four new home designs in the last year, contends that property values will continue to rise regardless of such actions.
But despite the struggle that some builders and agents have gone through, they are sympathetic to the design boards' goals. "They are doing their job," said Gordon Maddock, an Arcadia real estate agent. "We are trying to work together to come about with something we can all live with."
Barton said that the people she dealt with on the review board were polite and well-mannered but that she cannot forget her struggle.
"I'm going to make this house so beautiful that they will be sorry they put me through all of this," she said.