L.A. Imposes Stiff Curbs on Hillside Building

Times Staff Writer

Home construction on remote and unwieldy lots in the Santa Monica Mountains is expected to slow over the next year as the city of Los Angeles imposes new building restrictions on an eight-mile stretch from Bel-Air to Hollywood.

The temporary restrictions were unanimously approved by the City Council on Tuesday, and Acting Mayor John Ferraro signed them into law Wednesday. Mayor Tom Bradley, on a trade mission to the Far East, also supports them, an aide said.

The building limits are regarded as the city's toughest attempt in years to manage growth in the hills, which developers have turned to as one of the few remaining areas with vacant lots close to downtown and the Westside.

Unpaved Streets

The new restrictions were proposed by Councilmen Michael Woo and Zev Yaroslavsky in response to concerns of fire officials and residents about the safety of new homes built along unpaved, narrow or otherwise inadequate streets.

A one-year interim control ordinance that can be extended for a second year bans single-family home construction on roads narrower than 20 feet unless a city zoning administrator determines that the project "will not create health and safety hazards."

The regulations apply to projects south of Mulholland Drive between the San Diego Freeway and Outpost Drive. City officials are considering extending them to other hillside neighborhoods, including those on the San Fernando Valley side of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Last year, 156 building permits for new homes in the eight-mile stretch were issued, about two-thirds of them during the final four months of the year, when city officials began talking seriously about imposing restrictions. City Planner Karin Hodin estimated that 100 proposed projects are immediately subject to the new requirements because their plans were submitted to the city after Dec. 1, 1988, the retroactive date of the ordinance.

Several prominent hillside homeowner groups--including the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Assns.--praised the ordinance as a long-overdue move to make their neighborhoods safer.

But critics of the restrictions have labeled them an elitist attempt by hillside dwellers to keep newcomers out. A well-organized group of hillside property owners--many of whom own land they want to develop--had attempted to derail the restrictions since last September, when the city held its first public hearing on them.

"Let's not put in place an ordinance that will simply invite litigation by those that quite rightly will feel that their property rights . . . have been taken," said Berndt Lohr-Schmidt, leader of the opposition, at the City Council hearing Tuesday.

City officials say the ordinance is intended to hold down home construction while they find ways to permanently regulate building. Woo, who represents much of the affected area, said the ordinance gives the city "the opportunity to take a breath" as it makes a "deliberate effort to plan ahead for the future."

At Woo's request, the Planning Department has begun work on a specific plan for the hills that would set new requirements for development.

Meanwhile, a task force appointed by Bradley in November to study hillside safety is expected to submit a report by early next week. Later this year, a separate committee will recommend to Bradley ways to solve some of the problems, including the possibility of writing new building codes for hillside areas citywide.

Since they were first proposed nearly a year ago, the restrictions have aroused emotion in the hillsides, where property owners such as Lohr-Schmidt believe the city has no business interfering with single-family home development.

Opponents of the restrictions have complained that they place an unfair burden on newcomers to the hills to correct street problems that have been around for years.

Under the ordinance, projects can go forward without city review only if they meet a series of criteria, including the owner's agreeing to join any future assessment district for road improvements.

If a project does not meet the criteria, the owner must pay $600 for a zoning administrator to review the proposal and determine whether the project can proceed. Even if the zoning administrator eventually approves the project, the owner must agree to join the assessment district in order to build.

By contrast, the ordinance allows existing homeowners "to replace, restore remodel or add to" their homes without any requirement that they join an assessment district. In fact, Woo and Yaroslavsky removed from the original ordinance restrictions that applied to existing homeowners, after hundreds of them complained. In its final form, the ordinance requires only that construction by homeowners conform to five-foot front- and side-yard setbacks.

To give a break to property owners with building plans in the works, Councilman Richard Alatorre tried Tuesday to eliminate the ordinance's retroactive clause and make it effective beginning Tuesday, the date of council approval.

The move was denounced by several council members, who said developers had already taken advantage of the city's slow response to Woo's and Yaroslavsky's proposal last April to impose restrictions.

"If we were to adopt a date of Tuesday, you would be sending out a message to every developer, every land owner in town . . . to run, run, run and beat the deadline to put in something that destroys the planning objectives of the city of Los Angeles," said Councilman Marvin Braude.

Yaroslavsky said delays in getting the restrictions in place had promoted "land-use pornography" in the hills, referring to unattractive "three- and four-story buildings . . . that we would not allow to be built on Santa Monica Boulevard." He placed blame for the delays on the city's Planning Commission, which took three months to come up with a recommendation to the City Council on the proposed restrictions.

"It is an outrage that the Los Angeles City Planning Commission bottled this thing up . . . for several months, allowing people to come in and pull their building permits and do their thing up in the hills," Yaroslavsky said. "Any further delay of this would be a travesty."

Lohr-Schmidt, whose organization had won several key concessions from the Planning Commission that were later rejected by the City Council, said Yaroslavsky's criticism of the Planning Commission was "totally unfair."

"It was the politicians--Woo and Yaroslavsky--that put an impossible task on the Planning Department and then the Planning Commission," said Lohr-Schmidt, who unsuccessfully challenged Woo in the municipal primary election last week.


The temporary regulations will be in effect until April, 1990--with a possible one-year extension--and are retroactive to projects submitted to the Department of Building and Safety since Dec. 1, 1988. They apply to construction of single-family homes, but do not affect additions to existing homes if the new construction meets the front- and side-yard setback requirements.

A project can be built without special city review if it:

-- Is on a paved street at least 20 feet wide that intersects with a major road, as defined by the ordinance.

-- Has five-foot front- and side-yard setbacks.

-- Uses fire-retardant roof materials.

-- Contains an automatic fire sprinkler system.

-- Provides, in addition to number of parking spaces now set forth in code, one additional parking space for homes with five or six "habitable rooms," two additional spaces for homes with seven "habitable rooms."

-- And if the owner agrees to join any future assessment district for road improvements.

For projects that do not meet the criteria, the zoning administrator may issue a building permit if he or she determines that the project:

-- Will not create health and safety hazards.

-- Meets city planning, zoning and parking requirements.

-- Will not result in "parking impacts on adjacent streets."

-- Adheres to five-foot front- and side-yard setbacks.

-- Becomes part of any future assessment district.

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