Whittier Extends Restrictions on Apartment Construction

Times Staff Writer

City officials, responding to the protests of angry residents, this week dealt two setbacks to apartment developers' plans for new construction in some sections of north Whittier.

After a 1 1/2-hour public hearing, the City Council voted Tuesday to extended temporary building restrictions on all property north of Hadley Street for up to 10 months.

"We're hurting them," said Mayor Victor A. Lopez, who expressed concern for the developers in an interview after the meeting. "They may have to modify their ideas."

Possible Violation Cited

On Monday, a lawyer told the Planning Commission that apartments proposed for some sections of north Whittier would violate the city's General Plan, a blueprint of residential and commercial development.

Developers said the actions, particularly the lawyer's opinion, could slash some land values by up to 50%.

Attorney Michael Woods said that building restrictions in the General Plan prevail over city zoning laws when the two disagree. An estimated 5% to 10% of the area has conflicting building restrictions. Woods was asked by the Planning Commission to research the issue.

Charles Lawrence, a developer whose Dorland Street project was turned down by the Planning Commission because of the lawyer's opinion, said he will lose $280,000 if he is unable to build his 10-unit project on two lots once occupied by single-family homes.

"It's a question of equity and fairness and real property rights," Lawrence said. "We purchased property . . . on the basis of existing zoning requirements."

The land is zoned for high-density residential development, which would allow up to four apartment units per lot. But the General Plan lists the land for medium-density residences, which would allow only a duplex on each lot.

The council also heard from individual property owners. One was Evonne Sanchez, who planned to replace her family's earthquake-destroyed home with a four-unit apartment building.

"We're not professionals," Sanchez said. "We were counting on what the city told us" when first asked about building apartments on that property.

Lawrence asked the City Council to exempt apartment proposals submitted to City Hall before the restrictions were first imposed about six weeks ago.

But the City Council sided with the residents who packed the council chambers Tuesday and spoke about the negative impact of apartment construction on single-family neighborhoods. "If the time comes when people feel Whittier is no longer a desirable place to live, it will reduce property values for both homeowners and developers," said homeowner John Smith.

The apartment development debate has become the biggest issue in Whittier since the Oct. 1 earthquake, drawing about 150 people to Tuesday's council meeting and another 100 to Monday's Planning Commission session. The council listened silently as 35 people spoke during the public hearing, then voted unanimously and without comment to extend the building restrictions.

Require Special Permit

The restrictions require developers to get a special permit approved by the Planning Commission and the City Council before constructing apartments north of Hadley Street. As part of the permit process, the city planning staff studies the impact of additional apartments on traffic, the project's appearance and other environmental factors.

Previously, the city Building Department issued building permits over the counter, only checking to see that the property was zoned for apartment construction.

High-density zoning is scattered throughout north Whittier and the Uptown Village business district, and apartment buildings had been gradually appearing in those areas before the earthquake.

But proposals for apartment construction exploded after the Oct. 1 earthquake as developers purchased damaged single-family homes in high-density areas and demolished the houses to build apartments. Developers had filed plans with City Hall to build 183 apartment units citywide, with more than 120 of those north of Hadley Street.

City officials have insisted that quality apartment developments are still welcome in Whittier, and that the new restrictions will improve the quality of construction in the city.

But attorney Woods said that even projects such as Lawrence's that the city finds desirable cannot be built if the construction would violate the General Plan.

The lawyer's opinion prompted Helen McKenna-Rahder, a spokeswoman for the residents, to question whether the city had acted legally in allowing apartments to be built in medium-density areas after the earthquake.

"All that stuff that was put up between October and June slipped through, unnoticed and unchecked," McKenna-Rahder said.

City Manager Thomas G. Mauk said city planners believed, until now, that city zoning laws took precedence over the General Plan.

Mauk downplayed the significance of the lawyer's opinion, saying that housing density in the General Plan will just become another of the factors that city planners review when studying the impact of new construction.

The apartment restrictions are now seen as a defeat for developers and a victory for residents, but the rules of the game are likely to change again later this year when a citywide revision of the General Plan is completed.

For that reason, the developments considered before the study is finished will "certainly have to be carefully looked at," said Whittier Planning Commissioner Larry A. Haendiges. "There's a good chance they will be denied until the General Plan is completed."

The study is intended to correct inconsistencies between the zoning laws and the General Plan, and reevaluate density. It is possible some medium-density areas may become high-density, and vice versa, Mauk said.

It has been about 30 years since the city reconsidered zoning regulations, and 12 years since the General Plan was revised.

The rezoning study will begin with the area north of Hadley Street, then proceed through the rest of the city. The complete study will take at least six months, Mauk said.

"Those zones should have been changed a long time ago and it was never an issue until after the earthquake," Mauk said.

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