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Hearing to Focus on Role of Building Inspectors

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Los Angeles building inspectors will be under scrutiny Monday when officials take the unusual step of trying to determine whether partially built townhouses can be completed.

City zoning administrators will conduct a 2 p.m. hearing at the Van Nuys Woman’s Club to decide whether the Department of Building and Safety’s inspectors properly interpreted zoning maps when they authorized construction of the 24 townhouses in Woodland Hills.

Homeowners contend that the final phase of the West Hills Condominium development is too tall and sits too close to the site’s property line. They say the $7.5-million project fails to meet height and setback requirements approved for the area by the City Council.

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The dispute is not the first involving the townhouse project and building inspectors. Last year, building and safety officials pronounced the project finished before ground was even broken for its construction.

An inspector hurrying to finish paper work before his retirement is blamed for that mix-up, which occurred when building and safety issued a report to Councilman Marvin Braude that said the hilltop project was completed and fully occupied.

Discovered Mistake

Robert Ayers, the department’s San Fernando Valley manager, said his office promptly discovered the mistake and issued a correcting letter to Braude about three weeks later--a fact confirmed by the councilman’s office.

But a copy of the second letter was never forwarded to the Woodland Hills resident who had asked Braude about the status of the development. As a result, homeowners assert, they let their guard down and the final phase of the project was begun before they had a chance to protest. Their complaints prompted Braude to call for Monday’s unusual hearing.

Officials acknowledge that homeowners are rarely hesitant to call attention to problems at neighborhood construction sites in the Valley and surrounding areas.

Complaints from Sherman Oaks residents last year over the size of a new luxury home being built next to Beverly Glen Boulevard resulted in inspectors forcing the developer to lower the dwelling’s roof line.

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Protests over the seven-story height of an office building at Fairway Avenue and Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, which was approved to be three floors high, prompted a lengthy city investigation last year of inspectors’ interpretation of height restrictions. Officials decided that the height had been properly calculated. But the community furor prompted City Councilmen John Ferraro and Michael Woo to take steps to eliminate a special height bonus that benefited the builder.

Among Toughest Codes

Homeowner unhappiness over what became known as the “Cracked Slab Controversy” caused Thousand Oaks to enact one of the toughest building codes in the state when the Conejo Valley community incorporated 25 years ago.

The first housing tracts that were built in the then-unincorporated valley in the late 1950s and early 1960s were constructed on concrete slabs approved by Ventura County under standards that had worked well in other parts of the county. But when the slabs proved too thin to withstand the expansion and contraction of the adobe-like soil of the Conejo Valley, scores of dwellings along Moorpark Road were damaged.

The city’s founding fathers quickly decided to “require more involved soils tests and additional steel and deeper footings,” said David Hueners, a senior civil engineer with Thousand Oaks’ Building and Safety Department. “They also required an inspector to be on the site when concrete was being poured. Our foundation standards are still higher than in most local areas. Contractors are often surprised when they come out here for the first time.”

In nearby Agoura, building inspectors for Los Angeles County began looking more closely at development projects in 1982 after residents of a condominium project complained to the County Board of Supervisors that their 27-unit development was collapsing.

Officials concluded that unauthorized earthmoving weakened the project’s foundations and caused some of the $100,000 units to begin sinking. The developer eventually bought back the Colodny Drive units and repaired them.

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But county officials called the construction a disgrace and, after an investigation, ordered a three-day suspension for the building and safety inspector who had been assigned to monitor the condominiums’ construction. Since then, inspectors have been told to carefully watch for signs of unauthorized or unanticipated alterations around new construction, said Doug Browne, who heads Los Angeles County’s building and safety office in Calabasas.

Such attention paid off last year when a sharp-eyed inspector noticed that the ground next to freshly poured cement slabs at a Calabasas Park luxury home tract was disturbed. Further investigation showed that a contractor had accidentally altered the level of sand spread beneath about half a dozen of the homes’ slabs, Browne said.

County officials required the builder to halt further work until concrete coring tests could determine the extent of the problem. The county ordered the builder to reinforce some of the slabs and change the framing on some of the dwellings before construction could resume. The early detection saved the builder and his eventual buyers “tens of thousands of dollars,” Browne said.

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