Ordinance Hailed as Way to Preserve Hillside Ambience : Zoning: Proposal would limit size of houses in L.A.'s mountains and deal with narrow streets and fire safety. Opponents say it tries to do too much.
To many, life in the mountains is the quintessential Los Angeles experience.
Homes hover over hills covered with scrub brush, often propped audaciously on stilts.
Brush fires are challenged. Mudslides flouted. Earthquakes dared.
Places like Laurel Canyon, Mt. Washington and Beverly Glen have long been cherished by artists, actors, bohemians and others as havens for building homes and leading lives the way they choose.
But adherents to the hillside aesthetic say a shortage of housing in the city below has brought to Los Angeles’ mountains a new breed--late arrivals who are building houses so large that they threaten to destroy the native ambience. Old-timers have derided the new homes as “concrete monoliths” and “monuments to their owners’ egos.”
Now, city officials say they are ready to put the brakes on this “mansionization” of the hillsides. And, while they are at it, they are proposing to clean up what they see as a host of other problems: narrow roads, leaking septic tanks and isolation from firefighting crews.
The “Hillside Ordinance” has been making its way through the city bureaucracy for nearly three years, toward a likely City Council vote by year’s end. Many homeowners organizations have embraced it as a protector of their way of life.
Nearly 200 homeowners, builders and real estate agents crowded City Hall last week for a hearing on the proposal before the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee. The Federation of Canyon and Hillside Assns., which represents 56 residents groups that stretch from Woodland Hills to Eagle Rock, was prominent among the law’s supporters.
“There is a move afoot in this city to pack more people into the hills,” said Alan Kishbaugh, a Laurel Canyon homeowner and vice president of a residents group. “If you urbanize the hills to that extent, you have lost the great character of the Santa Monica Mountains, which are such a vital part of the atmosphere of Los Angeles.”
But other habitues of the hills say the law has gone astray--attempting to force their untamed habitat into the grid of conventional city planning. Opponents say the proposal trips over itself by forcing so many issues--from fire sprinklers to limitations on building height--into a law that covers so much territory, from the San Fernando Valley to San Pedro.
“They are saying, ‘Let’s have one ordinance to cover everything from Highland Park to the Hollywood Hills to San Pedro,’ ” said Louis Mraz, an architect and president of the Mt. Washington Assn., a residents group. “They are dealing with a bunch of unique communities and now they are trying to lump them all together. It just won’t work.”
The Hillside Ordinance began in 1988 as an effort by Hollywood-area Councilman Michael Woo to improve access for emergency vehicles on narrow mountain roads. The issue gained urgency late that year after an elderly woman died in her home near the top of Laurel Canyon. An ambulance had been delayed in reaching her because construction trucks clogged a substandard street.
The proposal was meant to improve hillside neighborhoods where less than 36 feet in width has been set aside for roadways--28 feet for the road itself and four feet on each side for potential improvements.
While the ordinance remains limited to those neighborhoods, it has been expanded with a series of amendments that attempt to stop the proliferation of oversized homes and to solve other problems. In its latest form, the law would regulate construction of new houses and additions to existing homes of more than 750 square feet.
The proposal would prohibit homes of more than 45 feet in height and permit construction on less than half of a lot. In some cases, it would also require homeowners or builders to widen streets.
The law also calls for more off-street parking to keep roads clear of obstructions and for houses near sewer lines to connect to them. The latter proposal is designed to prevent the erosion that has been linked to a proliferation of septic tanks.
Also, under the law, new homes and some being remodeled would be required to include sprinkler systems to provide additional fire protection in remote areas that fire companies sometimes have trouble reaching.
“These streets were never intended for this many homes or homes of this size,” Woo told the council committee last week. “There is soil erosion, the danger of brush fires, lack of water hook-ups and poor street access.”
Hill dwellers generally support restrictions on the size of homes, but say they are uneasy about other provisions of the law.
Residents are particularly disturbed by the notion that a simple remodeling job might trigger a requirement to widen narrow mountain lanes. Many said they would have to set their homes back substantially to provide the space required to accommodate half of the standard-width roadway. (Homeowners across the street would be responsible for the other half.)
City planners defend the street expansion plan, saying it will assure that hillside streets are widened as new homes are built or old ones improved. The wider roads will provide more room for cars, ambulances and fire trucks, they say.
“This is a health and safety issue,” said Gary Klein, the city planning associate who has helped draft the law. “The wider the streets, the faster the Fire Department can get there. And the only way we can widen them is to ask that (property owners with) new construction and improvements . . . do it.”
Planners concede that unforgiving topography will make wider streets impossible in some areas. In those cases, they say, the law will allow the city engineer to permit a narrower street.
Many homeowners and builders are not mollified. They say that when street widenings are ordered, they will have to move thousands of tons of earth--driving up building costs and destroying much of the land on which they can build. They say it will create hodgepodge streets, with widths varying from lot to lot.
More important, some argue that wider streets will violate the essence of the mountain life.
“I live on a little country lane and it should stay that way,” said Don Carlos Dunaway, a television writer and producer who lives in Beverly Glen. “The streets are narrow and there is a certain risk to living in the hills. A fire could be catastrophic. But anyone who lives in a city that could be flattened next week by an earthquake. . . . It may be a risk we all take, but we don’t need to be protected from ourselves.”
Others say the basic height and lot-coverage provisions of the proposal do not go far enough to control “mansionization.” Some communities already have local ordinances, and others are being drafted, that will supersede the Hillside Ordinance on those issues.
In Mt. Washington and Glassell Park, for instance, a Neighborhood Specific Plan is being written that would limit the square footage of homes. The plan for the two communities north of downtown would permit houses one-fourth the size of those allowed under the citywide Hillside Ordinance. It is scheduled to go before a City Council committee next month.
Mraz, the Mt. Washington architect, praised the neighborhood ordinance, saying the citywide law is too weak and would permit “quaint little cottage next to quaint little cottage and, then, boom, a (house that looks like a) salute to New York City.”
Mraz said shortcomings in the citywide ordinance are compounded by the unrealistic provisions for streets, sewers and fire sprinklers.
Others say the regulations present engineering obstacles that could be impossible to overcome or make home construction costs prohibitively expensive.
“With street-widening and height limits and the lot coverage they want, you can’t even build a garage,” said Tony Eldridge, a businessman who built his own home in the Hollywood Hills. “And they are not going to pay people for the property they can’t use. This is really just tragic.”
But city officials said they find most objections coming from real estate agents and builders, not from homeowners.
Most City Council members who have expressed an opinion remain generally supportive of the law--perhaps with amendments that would lessen road-widening requirements and raise the threshold at which home remodelers become subject to the law.
Both detractors and supporters of the Hillside Ordinance accused each other of violating the carefully cultivated spirit of Los Angeles’ hills.
“People are building outlandish, overpriced homes on substandard lots,” said Gordon Murley, president of the Hillside Federation. “Everyone who has spoken against this has only their greedy self-interests in mind.”
Eldridge, the Hollywood Hills businessman, disagrees.
“This (law) is for 80% of the people, who already have their homes and don’t want the other 20% to get theirs,” he said.
A proposed “Hillside Ordinance” in the city of Los Angeles would regulate the construction of new homes and major home additions in hillside neighborhoods stretching from the San Fernando Valley to San Pedro. The ordinance would be applied only in areas with substandard streets, where less than 36 feet in width has been set aside for roadways. The ordinance would:
* Limit the height of homes to 36 feet in most cases and 45 feet on steeper lots, as measured from the lowest point of the foundation to the top of the roof.
* Permit homes to cover a maximum of 40% on standard lots.
* Require that streets in front of homes be widened to at least 14 feet, from the center line to curb, with another four feet set aside for potential future improvement.
* Order that new houses within 200 feet of the city sewer system connect to it, rather than to septic tanks.
* Require the standard two parking spaces for homes of up to 2,400 square feet. Larger houses would be required to include one more off-street parking space for each additional 1,000 square feet of construction.
* Require automatic fire sprinklers in new homes. Sprinklers also would be required for certain remodeling jobs--when more than 50% is added to the size of a house and the house is more than two miles from the nearest fire station.