Crowded Canyon

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The foundations were barely in when the feuding broke out.

And now an 18-month-old dispute over houses being built on a steep mountainside in Laurel Canyon has spilled into City Hall and may be headed for the courts.

At issue are 21 large homes planned for a 45-degree slope overlooking a quiet neighborhood near the top of the canyon, which separates Hollywood from the San Fernando Valley.

The first five houses have been under construction since early 1999. Now the developer wants to start work on the rest.

But canyon residents are appalled by the five imposing structures clinging to the mountain and angry over disruption caused by the construction. They are demanding that Los Angeles officials ban any additional houses on the site.

The developer says he has the legal right to build and accuses the canyon dwellers and the city of delaying things and creating the very problems that residents are complaining about.

The dispute centers on a 77-year-old subdivision map--one of many drawn up in the 1920s by land speculators who sought to sell weekend cabin sites in the Santa Monica Mountains to city dwellers.

On paper, the subdivisions are flat-looking lots neatly lined up along what appear to be city-style streets. In reality, much of the mountainous terrain is too rugged for conventional homes and roads.

Over the years, the flatter, more accessible lots were sold and built upon. Steeper parcels, called "billy goat land" by builders, remained vacant and forgotten--seemingly unusable and worthless.

Then, in 1986, developer Yehuda Arviv found the five acres just south of Mulholland Highway near Willow Glen Road. Where others had seen billy goat land, he saw 22 spectacular home sites. He purchased the slope for a reported $150,000.

"It was very, very cheap," acknowledges Arviv. "They were all legal lots, with access to all utilities."

Because the property had already been subdivided, all Arviv had to do was take out building permits, carve a road to the lots and start digging foundations into the mountainside's bedrock.

Homeowners living beneath the slope were alarmed last year when they saw Arviv start work on the first five houses along a dirt road called Woodstock Road.

The homeowners remembered that two other houses built on a nearby slope by another developer had never been completed because of problems with their access road. The abandoned, partially built structures became a fire hazard when transients moved in, residents said.

Arviv's neighbors were irritated when dirt and debris began tumbling down the hill from his construction site. They were infuriated when they learned that he planned to build 21 houses on Woodstock and on a yet-to-be-built road below it called Leicester Drive.

A flurry of complaints was filed with Los Angeles officials, alleging that the five houses were too tall, that Woodstock and Leicester were not proper roads and that construction workers were illegally working on Sundays.

Canyon residents grumbled that Arviv was sidestepping environmental reviews normally required of 21-home tracts by applying for building permits one at a time. They complained that officials did not require that his construction plans be approved in advance by the city's Mulholland Scenic Corridor Design Review Board, which has jurisdiction over new construction in the area.

"The city has not been diligent. . . . They allowed his over-height buildings. The Planning Department asked the Building and Safety Department to put a stop order on the work and they didn't. The city has not done its job," said Joe Leonard, a resident of Laurel Canyon for 35 years.

Reacting to the complaints, the city has ordered Arviv to submit plans to the Mulholland panel for his next phase of houses. That review has been scheduled for Thursday.

Leonard and others have formed a neighborhood homeowners association and hired a lawyer in hopes of blocking the remaining 16 homes if the city won't do it for them. They say they are concerned that Arviv's homes will never be completed and sold because the city Fire Department will not sign off on occupancy permits for new homes if they lack adequate access for firetrucks.

"If they're not occupied, it will be an instant slum," warned Leonard's wife, Joann Leonard.

Others, meanwhile, continue to chafe over the current construction. Windows on two residents' cars parked outside Arviv's construction site were allegedly broken last month when a machine grading a portion of the future Leicester Drive knocked utility wires onto them.

Neighbor Ann Monn, who lives directly beneath the construction site, said she stayed up all night during a winter rainstorm, shoveling mud that washed down from the project. She said she has repeatedly fished construction debris out of her backyard swimming pool.

Now she is giving up on the home she has rented for 11 years.

"I'm done digging. I've gone crazy coping with this. I'm leaving," said Monn. "The city says it can't do anything, that I have to wait until damage occurs and then sue him. I'm completely appalled at how unevenly things are enforced by the city."

For his part, Arviv also says he's appalled at the way things have unfolded.

He asserts that the city abandoned plans to connect a future Woodstock Road with the adjoining Mt. Olympus subdivision. Such a connection would have solved part of his firetruck access problem.

Because Woodstock will be a dead-end street, it must be 26 feet wide and equipped with a turnaround large enough for a fire engine to use. Arviv said he will have to sacrifice one of his lots to make room for the turning space.

"That street is going to cost me $500,000," he complained.

In the meantime, Arviv has responded to his complaining neighbors by ordering several of them to remove retaining walls and structures that he says are illegally built on his land.

Last week, Arviv sent letters to two property owners beneath his construction site, warning them they have "improperly cut into the mountain" and have undermined the stability of his land. He advised a property owner just south of his site that a 100-foot retaining wall that allegedly encroaches on his land must be removed within 30 days.

His new homes, which will average about 3,000 square feet and sell for about $1 million each, will be an asset to Laurel Canyon, Arviv said.

"They will be spectacular homes," he said. "People should kiss me for building them. They should be happy."

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