A Woodland Hills developer turned a thicket of pine boughs into a symbolic olive branch Sunday to apparently end a rift with nearby homeowners over construction of a new hilltop condominium project.
Development partner James R. Gary pledged that 50 large evergreens will be planted alongside 30 existing sycamores to screen the 24-unit luxury townhouse project from the view of a 30-year-old neighborhood at the bottom of the hill.
The developers will agree to a written guarantee that the heavy landscaping will be permanently maintained, and that the trees will never be removed to give condominium residents a better view, Gary promised the leader of a neighborhood protest against the project.
The assurances to Paula Corby came three hours after 75 of Corby’s neighbors gathered in her front yard to map plans to fight the construction.
To their dismay, the homeowners were told that their complaints were 12 years too late to halt the three-story project, which was approved by Los Angeles city officials in mid-1978.
“If you have any hopes of having it redesigned or cut to one story in height, I’d say you’re blowing into the wind,” said Benjamin Reznik, an Encino land-use attorney.
He said the entire 80-unit West Hills Condominiums project at 20700 Ventura Blvd. was approved for construction in three phases. The 24-unit hilltop building now being erected over Corby’s neighborhood is the final phase.
In granting the 1978 approval, city officials ordered that enough trees and shrubs be planted around the project so that it would “not be any more obtrusive than would a single-family dwelling.”
“Technically, they don’t have to put the landscaping in until they’re done and ready for occupancy,” Reznik told glum-faced residents, who live south of the hill.
He warned that future buyers of the $350,000 condominiums might decide to cut down some of the trees after the city signs off on the project so as “to keep their magnificent views.”
Angry downhill residents said they felt betrayed.
“We went to public hearings and fought this 12 years ago and thought we had something we could live with,” said Robert McKnight, a 23-year resident.
Neighbor Bert Harrigan said he assumed that the condominiums would be built so they would not be visible from his De La Guerra Street home of 25 years.
Three hours after the front yard protest ended, Gary escorted Corby to the hilltop project site. Gary is a real estate broker who became a limited partner in the condominium project last year when his firm sold the financially troubled property to San Francisco builder Ed Dade.
He showed Corby landscape plans and artist’s sketches that depicted the building nearly hidden behind rows of lush, green trees.
Gary said that the developers will not object if the city wants to amend the 1978 development agreement to specify that the new trees can never be cut down and must always be maintained.
He said that future condominium buyers are not likely to want to remove the trees anyway since their dwelling units will face north. He led Corby into several of the unfinished units to prove that the best views face away from her neighborhood and toward Warner Center to the north.
“It’s going to be a forest up here,” Gary said, showing Corby the first group of 25 boxed evergreens that were delivered to the site six days ago. The 30-foot-tall pines and redwoods cost about $2,400 each.
Corby said she was relieved by the condominiums’ north-facing design and by the landscape plan.
“If it ends up being as thick as that, my personal opinion is it will be all right,” she told Gary, explaining that her neighborhood is not against a quality development on the hilltop.
But Corby said her neighbors will demand that the lifetime tree guarantee “be put in cement” by the city because of past city confusion over the condominium project.
As recently as May, 1988, Corby said, city officials were under the impression that the entire $7.5-million project was completed, fully occupied and heavily landscaped.
“All 80 units have been constructed,” wrote K.A. Ayers, manager of the Van Nuys office of the city’s Building and Safety Department on May 31. He said in a letter to Woodland Hills-area City Councilman Marvin Braude that the occupancy permit for the final 24-unit phase was issued Feb. 10, 1987.
“A special investigation by my staff this week confirmed that all required decorative walls, screening and heavy landscaping . . . have been installed,” Ayers wrote.
But Corby said construction of the final phase did not even begin until several months after that.