A Growth Plan Run Amok
Nearly 20 years ago, top Los Angeles County officials promised to limit development to help preserve one of the region’s most precious natural resources, the Santa Monica Mountains.
They approved a growth plan to balance building against the beauty and danger of the western part of the mountains, a rugged, 160-square-mile landscape plagued by fire, flood and mudslide.
But in the next two decades, the Board of Supervisors and county planners repeatedly manipulated the growth plan to favor developers, helping to fuel a building boom that has clogged roads, packed schools and degraded delicate natural habitat.
Nearly 40% of the 88 subdivision plans in the western Santa Monicas filed since 1981 are bigger than the original plan allowed, according to a Times analysis. In one remarkable case, 204 homes were approved on space earmarked for 37.
All told, the county approved in piecemeal fashion what amounts to a massive subdivision, allowing developers to build 2,200 homes on land designated for 1,000.
That intensive development--all perfectly legal--has degraded the environment and has hit hardest for the nearly 80,000 people who live in the mountains and the 2 million who visit each year.
More is coming. Today, 68 potential projects await final approval--for another 2,400 homes. Even now, bulldozers are shaving hillsides to build homes approved more than 15 years ago.
Among the findings of a Times’ computer-assisted analysis of county and other records:
* County supervisors and their appointees on the regional planning commission repeatedly eased density limits for mountain subdivisions. In most cases, the developers who benefited from the extra homes were campaign contributors to Mike Antonovich, supervisor in the area during the period of greatest building. Often the donations came in the days and weeks surrounding key votes on controversial projects.
* Planning department staff encouraged developers to count roads and other public rights of way as their own land, thus exploiting complex formulas to let them build more homes.
* Developers promised to build affordable housing in return for greater density, but in some cases there is no evidence that the promises were fulfilled.
* Residents of homes in the dense developments are more than twice as likely to claim disaster relief as other residents of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Even with all the building, vast swaths of the mountains have been protected over the two decades. State and federal agencies spent $421 million to buy 44% of the region. County supervisors often shrank proposed subdivisions or ordered developers to leave land wild, usually as private open space. In a few instances, developments were rejected entirely.
Antonovich defended his record, saying he worked hard to preserve the mountains. He said developers took no handouts from taxpayers and paid substantial fees that helped to build roads and parks. His aides also disputed The Times’ figures, saying that they overstated the effects of the development.
“We didn’t flatten the mountains,” Antonovich said. “We worked with the community to ensure that the quality of life was such that . . . property values were enhanced.”
The findings have particular relevance now because county officials are drawing up completely new plans to guide future growth in the Santa Monicas.
That future concerns people like Peter Ireland who want to keep the mountains as wild as possible.
A former planning aide to pro-growth Supervisor Deane Dana, Ireland switched careers when he saw mansions crushing mountaintops. Today, he heads the Mountains Restoration Trust, a nonprofit agency that buys land for preservation.
“The Santa Monica Mountains are as threatened now as they ever were,” Ireland said. Told of The Times’ findings, he said: “That is something that should scare the hell out of anybody.”
Battleground for Developers, Activists
The Santa Monica Mountains sweep physically and psychically into the heart of Los Angeles--refuge, reference and resource.
They have come to signify Los Angeles’ answer to the more formal parks of the East, providing a place to see waterfalls and wildflowers instead of fountains and flower beds.
The mountains have long been a battleground for preservationists and developers, since well before 1975, when a judge voided the county’s general plan, in part because it failed to adequately protect the mountains. He ordered another plan drawn up.
Ideally, the general plan was a community’s vision of its future, serving as a guide for other government agencies to predict the demand for sewers, roads and schools.
Such blueprints are designed to be flexible. Changes must be “in the public interest” to correct a problem or reflect a change in community philosophy, according to California law.
Since the plan took effect, the supervisors have approved more than one of every two plan changes proposed for the Santa Monica Mountains. Between 1981 and 1991, when Antonovich was supervisor for the mountain area, the plan was altered 37 times--an average of nearly once every three months.
In all but a few cases, developers got permission to build more houses--in one case, 700% more than the plan specified.
In interviews, many in the Department of Regional Planning decried how the supervisors repeatedly revised the plan to add more homes.
“If you look at the vast majority of plan amendments, the staff inevitably is for denial or severe changes,” said John Schwarze, who oversees all development proposals in the county.
How did developers benefit? Beverly Hills builder Herman Rappaport got 72 homes approved in an area designated for 40. Sunnyglen Corp. was allowed to build 41 homes on a site allocated for 12. Redken Corp. won permission for 27 homes in an area the plan limited to seven because of its wild nature--plunking a subdivision with street lights and front lawns at the doorway of Peter Strauss Ranch, a part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
The effects of changing the plan are visible all over the Santa Monicas--in rows of red-tile roofs and pink stucco homes crammed incongruously into valleys and sloping hillsides.
Typical was the case of Larry Dinovitz, a horse fancier and longtime Calabasas resident. He was the one who got approval to boost the number of homes on his land from the 37 allowed under the plan to 204.
What’s more, the supervisors’ approval allowed Dinovitz to build his Stokes Canyon subdivision, where homes sell for $700,000 to $800,000, across a ridge that had been dedicated for open space as a condition of approval for an earlier subdivision.
Schwarze said the county approved the construction under a policy that let Dinovitz build on the open space in Stokes Canyon in return for providing open space at a different location.
Such a decision these days would anger many people, Schwarze said, but “back in the ‘80s, you wouldn’t have noticed it because just as your house was built, the next houses were being built.”
Dinovitz didn’t respond to written or telephone requests from The Times to discuss the case. But the project engineer, Wes Lind, said that demand dictated the need for more homes.
“The market wants this type of housing,” Lind said. “We needed to change the plan to let us spread things out a little further.”
As Lind and Dinovitz sought that change from the Board of Supervisors, they contributed $22,350 to Antonovich’s campaign committees, and a total of $44,850 to all supervisors.
Said Lind of Antonovich and Dana: “I like their philosophy and thought they were good for the area.”
Such largess was common among those trying to win approval for controversial developments.
Hans Giraud, a development consultant, helped Currey-Riach Co. win approval in 1983 for a project called Lost Hills despite strong neighborhood opposition. Although the overall project did not exceed the plan’s density limits, some parts of the development had many more units than the plan intended.
The $45,805 in contributions from the company and its allies, Giraud said, was simply the cost of doing business in a process where fickle political winds can determine a project’s fate.
“When it comes to land use, the supervisor is king of the mountain in his district,” Giraud said. “They exert such an undue influence on land use, it’s just good business to get your point across in any way you can that’s legal.”
Evidence of that influence: In all, Antonovich’s campaigns have received $225,000 since 1984 from those seeking to exceed mountain growth limits--more than three times that collected by former Supervisor Dana, whose district included the Malibu area.
Antonovich said in an interview that money never influenced his votes. And, he said, he saw no harm in voting on the projects of campaign contributors.
“The amount of money raised in a campaign donation is like a tenth of a tenth of a tenth of a percent” of the total campaign contributions, Antonovich said. “It’s not make or break.”
So why allow developers to go beyond the plan’s limits?
Antonovich said he was able to wring more concessions from developers by allowing them to build more units. He added that he helped make developers negotiate with neighborhood groups.
The neighbors “got something out of it they wouldn’t have otherwise. Those agreements enhanced the area,” Antonovich said. “It’s an area with one of the finest school districts and a high quality of life.”
Getting Around Density Rules
In many cases, developers didn’t have to go through the time-consuming process of persuading the elected supervisors to alter the plan.
Sometimes, all they had to do was build their homes next to a wide street.
That’s because some staff-level county planners, contrary to department policy, allowed developers to claim major streets as part of their projects. The extra land, at least on paper, allowed more homes to be built.
Although developers claimed public streets to build more homes, they paid no property tax on that land for the privilege.
Take Saddlepeak & Associates. It owned a 5.5-acre hillside parcel bordered by major streets near Las Virgenes Road. One house per acre was permitted under the 1981 county plan.
But when Saddlepeak applied to develop the property, it listed the area at 8.1 acres--enough space to justify a total of eight homes, not five. Neighbors challenged the figure, but Schwarze told the developers that they could count land under adjacent public streets.
Acting later on the county’s figures, the California Coastal Commission also approved the project.
When persistent neighbors still objected, the Coastal Commission reviewed the case and admitted that it was a mistake to allow the developer to include public streets in its acreage calculation. But commissioners didn’t rescind the approval because they concluded that Saddlepeak, which no longer owns the land, had not deliberately lied.
The Coastal Commission staff now carefully reviews files from Los Angeles County to make sure that the calculations are correct.
Schwarze admitted that he had erred, but said the rules at the time were confusing.
“So I was wrong,” Schwarze said. “However, I don’t think I was totally wrong.”
Different rules apply in different areas of the county, said John Hartman, who reviews subdivisions for the county. In the Santa Monicas, he said, department policy dictates that planners ignore “major” streets in their land calculations but may include secondary streets.
Because that policy wasn’t clearly spelled out, different planners may have applied different standards to different projects, Hartman said.
“It’s easy for individual planners to apply different approaches,” Hartman said. “It’s not cheating or fudging or anything.”
Planning head James Hartl vowed to correct the problem and issued a directive to clearly spell out department policy to planners.
“One of our biggest concerns is consistency,” Hartl said.
In at least two cases, after county officials said there wasn’t enough land to justify the proposed projects, builders submitted new plans that simply listed more acreage. However, once the projects were approved and recorded for tax purposes, the sites shrank to their original--and cheaper--sizes.
County officials said they almost never verify figures submitted by developers, relying instead on the threat of professional sanctions against engineers who submit false information. They said staff shortages sometimes lead to mistakes, and noted that the county has the fewest planners per capita of any major jurisdiction in the state.
Still, Schwarze expressed surprise at the differing figures.
“That’s amazing to me,” he said. “I hope we’re more accurate now is all I can say. I’d like to believe we don’t do this anymore.”
Even now, however, one planner said developers are sometimes encouraged to double check lot sizes or “recalculate” building formulas to allow more homes.
“It’s always amazing that they come back in with that little extra bit for the density they need,” Hartman said.
The extra bit can mean big money: One additional lot can sell for $1 million in some parts of the Santa Monicas.
In the quest to build more homes, developers sometimes won higher densities in return for providing affordable housing, a policy encouraged by the county to increase the stock of homes for those with low incomes.
All told, 290 affordable units were built in the county portion of the Santa Monicas. Although the plan requires such homes to be offered for sale or rental at low prices for 30 years, supervisors sometimes imposed these limits for only 10 years.
Even then it’s not clear how often the requirement was fulfilled. Sometimes, nobody checks.
Gil Eisner, once a deputy to former Supervisor Baxter Ward, won approval to build 84 condominiums on land designated for 56 units in return for providing a dozen affordable units through the year 2014. The condos, called Malibu Canyon Villas, have since become part of Calabasas.
Today, there are no affordable units in the villas, according to the local homeowners association.
Calabasas and the county blame each other for failing to ensure that the developer kept his promise.
Eisner, who sold the project shortly after winning approval, wasn’t surprised. County officials, he said, made initial checks to ensure that the affordable homes were sold, but failed to follow up in later years.
“I’m sure that somewhere in this whole scheme of things that [the units] no longer are being sold to appropriately low-income people,” Eisner said. “I’m willing to bet a dinner on it.”
Transformation of Upper Valley
To view the effects of development, look no further than the upper Las Virgenes Valley--what little of it can be seen, that is.
In 1981, the valley that leads into Malibu Canyon south of the Ventura Freeway was a broad expanse of grassland and the occasional oak tree. The National Parks Service hoped to make it a centerpiece of the recreation area.
Today, the valley designated as “open play area” in those early park plans is a sea of homes, condos and apartments--some of them in developments with up to seven times the density called for in the 1981 plan.
The large developments surprised local school and water officials, who watched the demand for classroom space and sewage treatment soar. Traffic too became a problem. The main road through the valley--Las Virgenes Road--now has long waits at major intersections.
Don Zimring, deputy superintendent of the Las Virgenes Unified School District, said he repeatedly warned county supervisors that the district couldn’t accommodate the increases. No matter.
Today, all 10 of the district’s elementary and middle schools use portable classrooms to handle the bulging enrollment. A.E. Wright Middle School crams 1,600 pupils onto a campus designed for 1,300. Round Meadow Elementary School has 650 students--more than double its 295-student design capacity.
“The standard growth was bad enough,” Zimring said. “Upzoning just exacerbated what was already a difficult problem.”
Las Virgenes Water District officials had even more of a problem. Plans for water and sewer lines must be made long in advance because of lengthy construction times. As supervisors routinely granted increases over the plan that the district relied on to predict growth, officials decided that the only safe course was to build the biggest possible sewage plant.
Now it must charge among the highest water and sewer connection fees in the county to pay for it.
“We’re probably a little overbuilt currently--but when we couldn’t project what the future would bring, we chose the path of saying we need to be safe rather than sorry,” said Hal Helsley, president of the water district’s board of directors.
After 20 years in office, Helsley was voted out in November after critics contended that the water rates are too high.
Studying the Toll of Development
The effects on the environment are more difficult to quantify.
State and federal park officials, who spent most of the 1980s and early ‘90s buying up mountain land to preserve it, are just now stepping back to study the toll of development. Indeed, the mountains have become something of a laboratory to examine the impact of development on wild areas, with 25 to 30 ongoing projects by researchers from all over the United States.
Scientists who study the area say that whole habitats for certain species, such as the endangered Lyon’s pentachaeta flower, are nearly gone. Other habitats have been significantly degraded.
Exhibit one is Malibu Creek.
The creek is the outlet to the sea for the largest watershed in the mountains, draining 104 square miles around Calabasas. Nearly two-thirds of the mountain development in the last 20 years took place in that watershed.
A 50% increase in road surface and other paved areas sends more runoff into the creek. And stream flow is boosted beyond natural levels every time someone flushes a toilet or turns on a sprinkler, since the water supply is imported and treated sewage water is released into the creek.
The proof is in the numbers: Average summer water levels in the creek have increased dramatically in the past 10 years, according to a UCLA study. Other records show that in some months, the average flow during the 1990s was five times the flow found in the 1980s, going from 4.5 cubic feet per second to more than 20.
Scientists debate what it means. One concern is that the higher year-round water levels alter the natural cycles of drought and flood to which animals have adapted. Pepperdine biology professor Lee Kats said the higher levels may help explain why two imperiled native species, California newts and California tree frogs, have all but vanished in the last 20 years.
Nonnative predators account for most of the decline. But Kats also contends that higher water flows and increased sedimentation have reduced breeding areas for the two species and upset an environment accustomed to seasonal drought. Those two species, which serve as a benchmark for the health of other native animals, indicate serious problems in the creek and the food chain in the area, he said.
“When you go through Malibu Creek today, it looks like a bomb went off,” Kats said.
Increase in Disaster Claims
The true cost of the denser developments may be even higher.
Residents in subdivisions that exceeded the original plan’s allowable density have filed claims for property tax disaster relief 2.4 times more often than other Santa Monica Mountains residents, according to a Times analysis.
All told, about 325 claims were filed in subdivisions that exceeded the growth limits--about 20% of property owners in those neighborhoods. That compares to about 3,000 claims filed in the entire western Santa Monicas during the past decade--a rate of about 8.4%.
The county assessor’s office declined to release details on the claims, but they are typically granted for damage to property stemming from disasters such as earthquakes, fires and mudslides.
Geologists and earthquake experts contacted by The Times said the findings warrant further investigation. They suggested that higher-density subdivisions often involve more grading and thus more potential for mudslides or trouble during settling.
Court records show that some property owners and homeowners associations in such subdivisions have sued builders over the collapse of slopes.
The Westridge homeowners association settled for $715,000 from the neighborhood’s developers and business partners after eight landslides hit the hilltop community between 1989 and 1994, records show. The area was designated for 71 homes under the original plan; 111 were built.
Stokes Canyon homeowners sued after failures following rains in February 1995. There, 204 homes were approved where the plan limited builders to 37. In Mulholland Heights--with 41 homes on a site zoned for 12--residents also sued over mudslide problems. In every case, developers settled without admitting wrongdoing.
One disaster victim was Rahel Vartivarian, who until last winter was a resident of Mountain Park Estates. In March, as El Nino-driven rains pounded the steep slopes surrounding his gated neighborhood, Vartivarian watched as his $1-million home slumped away in a slow-moving landslide.
Vartivarian’s home was built in a neighborhood originally tagged to have 40 homes. Instead, 72 were approved.
Vartivarian, who is suing the county, the city of Calabasas and others for problems with the drainage system, contends that the homes should have never been approved in the first place.
Although damage to individual homes costs the public little but lost property tax revenues, natural disasters result in direct costs in terms of federal disaster relief to help homeowners make repairs.
Between 1992 and 1998, the federal government spent $54 million in direct relief aid in the mountains, the bulk coming from the 1994 Northridge earthquake, according to a Times analysis of disaster claims. The second-costliest disaster in the area was the 1993 fire that swept from Calabasas to Malibu, resulting in claims for $12.7 million in relief. The figure does not include disaster-related loans.
Art Eck, superintendent of the national recreation area, said the money spent on disaster relief should have been used to purchase more acreage in the mountains for parkland.
“The federal government has spent two and three times more to maintain property in areas where it wasn’t viable than on acquisition [of properties],” Eck said. “We don’t want to subsidize unfeasible and ill-advised development. There are problem places in these mountains where development should not occur.”
Hike across any number of the trails crisscrossing the Santa Monica Mountains, and you will eventually see workers hammering on new homes and bulldozers chugging across barren landscapes.
It is a glimpse into the future.
When the real estate boom of the mid-'80s collapsed, so did the plans of many developers. But the projects didn’t die. They merely went into hibernation.
About 2,400 more homes are proposed in the mountains. Of those, nearly 1,500 have received tentative county approval as of March 1 and await only a well-financed developer to be built.
The backlog frustrates residents of Calabasas, Agoura Hills and Malibu who fought to incorporate largely to gain control over growth.
In many cases, the cities are forced to issue building permits on projects that violate what their codes allow, because developers had won county approval before cityhood.
The source of the problem lies in the generous deadlines given developers after approval and before the start of construction, critics say.
Under state law, project approval is good for two years. In reality, however, those two years often grow into five, 10 and even 15 years, in effect allowing developers to avoid further review.
Developers can apply for five one-year extensions. In 1993 and 1996, because of the recession, state legislators granted automatic extensions adding three years to the life of all subdivision projects. In addition, the clock stops ticking when lawsuits are filed.
“It has really irritated us,” Schwarze said. “Our concern is this: Things change. We learn lessons. By extending the time, we can’t impose new conditions.”
One example: Under fire safety rules, neighborhoods must have at least two access points, allowing escape even if fire blocks one exit. A project in Triunfo Canyon complied with the rule because of a highway that was planned when the project was approved 17 years ago. The highway was never built, and last September, county officials tried to force the developer, who asked for an extension, to submit to a review. He refused. The case is on appeal to planning commissioners, with a hearing set for Jan. 13. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who has represented the area since 1994, said the backlog of pending projects is a serious concern.
“Those are little time bombs,” he said. “Some will never be built. Some may be built, and some we’ll purchase” for preservation.
That preservation effort may get a boost from the current push to redraw the mountain’s growth plan for the first time since 1981. The new plan, still being circulated for public input, mostly sticks to the densities allowed in the older plan. Though some landowners complain that they are being unfairly restricted to fewer homes, environmentalists want still tighter growth limits.
Whatever the outcome, Yaroslavsky vowed to follow the new plan: “I can’t envision a circumstance in an area like the Santa Monica Mountains where I would support an amendment that would intensify density.”
Yaroslavsky said he takes to heart a story from the mountains’ past, when the Griffith family attempted to donate the land that now makes up the country’s largest urban park. Los Angeles city officials debated whether to accept the gift, concerned that Griffith Park would be so far from downtown.
The western Santa Monicas now seem remote. But someday, Yaroslavsky said, they too could be the only refuge in a sea of urban sprawl.
“In the past, the county forgot who the customer was. Our customer isn’t the developer. Our customer,” he said, “is posterity.”
Times researcher Stephanie Stassel contributed to this story.
How This Project Was Prepared
How well has Los Angeles County managed growth in the Santa Monica Mountains? To answer the question, The Times interviewed more than 100 people and inspected 50,000 pages of documents. Computers were used to build maps and analyze data on subdivisions, disaster relief claims, campaign contributions and events such as fires, landslides and earthquakes. The data were obtained from federal, state and local agencies.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Dense Neighborhoods in the Santa Monica Mountains
The Board of Supervisors routinely allowed developers to exceed growth limits designed to preserve the Santa Monica Mountains. The resulting development has crowded schools, jammed mountain roads and harmed the region’s fragile environment. The five maps below show some of the subdivisions that exceeded limits set by the area’s 1981 growth plan.
1. Upper Las Virgenes Valley homes
Number of homes
2. Stokes Canyon, Mountain Park Estates and other Calabasas Park developments
Number of homes
3. Lost Virgenes Valley Homes
Number of homes
4. Monte Nido developments
Number of homes
5. Mullholland Heights and surrounding area
Number of homes
Engineers rank the amount of congestion on a particular road with an “A” through “F” letter grade. Several factors, including the speed and number of vehicles, terrain and number of lanes, are considered when determining the road’s “level of service.”
ESCAPING THE COUNTY
Two cities incorporated in 1991 to escape county land use control: Malibu and Calabasas. Seventy-four percent of the subdivisions that exceeded the 1981 growth plan were built there.
Unincorporated areas: 26%
Sources: Caltrans; Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning; Los Angeles County assessor’s office; United States Geological Survey; cities of Agoura Hills, Calabasas and Malibu/Researched by T. CHRISTIAN MILLER and STEPHANIE STASSEL/Los Angeles Times
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Pushing the Limits of Growth
County officials routinely permitted developers to change the plan that governs housing density in the Santa Monicas. But there are three other techniques that resulted in developers’ legally surpassing growth limits.
Both state and local ordinances allow developers to build more units than called for in a growth plan if they promise to build affordable housing. Although the law allows for the units to be set aside for 30 years, county officials frequently decreased that amount of time.
Developers can transfer the number of buildings allowed in one portion of their project to another portion. The effect is to cluster development in a central portion of the property while creating open space in undesirable building areas like steep slopes.
Counting streets and rights of way
County planners occasionally have allowed builders to include streets and flood control channels surrounding their property as part of their development. The effect is to increase the apparent size of the property, and thus the number of homes allowed.
Source: Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning/Researched by T. CHRISTIAN MILLER