When you think of community activism, with neighbors knocking on doors to get signatures on a petition, banding together for a cause, Bel-Air probably doesn't spring to mind. It's a neighborhood known more for its affluent residents (some with quickly recognizable names: Elizabeth Taylor, Robert and Rosemary Stack), its large, impressive houses behind tall gates, lush foliage and stately trees.
But the elegant tranquillity of the area has been disturbed by a proposed construction project that has galvanized much of the neighborhood, sending some residents to Los Angeles City Council meetings to protest and prompting others to write letters to the Environmental Review Board. They've even formed an organization devoted to the cause, Concerned Residents of Bel Air, holding meetings at one another's homes and exchanging faxes and phone calls.
At the center of the uproar is the house that Elliott and Robin Broidy plan to build on a lot that is 1.75 acres and includes a ravine filled with oak trees. Up until now, two pieces of property shared the ravine, with the property line running down the center. The Broidys bought both properties two years ago, did a lot line adjustment and sold off one of the houses. They now own the ravine, as well as a quaint stone bridge known in the neighborhood as the Nimes Bridge.
While the necessary permits and variances are not yet in place, the plans are for a 56-foot-high house, starting at the bottom of the hill. If their application for a variance is approved, the house will be 20,386 square feet, plus a second structure of 5,676 square feet with subterranean parking for 11 cars. The tennis court will hug the property line of their nearest neighbor, Joanna Carson, ex-wife of Johnny Carson. The project calls for 6,960 cubic yards of dirt to be hauled in to partially fill the ravine. The Broidys, who live in nearby Holmby Hills, plan to remove 35 trees; 12 of them are California oaks that, depending on whom you believe, are either no older than 35 years, or close to 100.
The ravine is the key to the dispute. The neighbors want to keep its serenity and naturalness untouched. The Broidys want to build what they say all of their neighbors already have: their dream house. It's a common dispute that rages in neighborhoods across the nation, but in this community of multimillion-dollar homes, it all plays out on a grander scale.
Each side has retained an attorney. Each side has hired an arborist. And the two sides are definitely not going to be sitting down for tea any time soon.
Gerald Sauer, of Sauer & Wagner, the attorney hired by the Concerned Residents, says that in terms of the lack of sensitivity to the integrity of a neighborhood that "if the Broidys are successful at this, it will open the doors to more development and overbuilding in other neighborhoods."
But Elliott Broidy, who owns the Elliott Broidy Trust investment firm, says the neighbors are being less than genuine in their outrage. "Most of them have a self-interest. If you look at their own history, if you look at their own improvements to land area coverage, you'll see that these people are not conservationists, they are not environmentalists who want to see more trees or more green grass. These are people who have developed their lot more fully than I have."
Their anger, he believes, stems from the already-approved hauling route, which, with more than 6,900 cubic yards of dirt to transport, translates into a 10-wheeler driving a narrow, winding road through the neighborhood every 20 minutes for 30 to 50 days.
The City Council meetings at which the route was discussed were, to say the least, contentious. Councilman Mike Feuer was faced with deciding what the route should be. "I had to consider safety and brevity," he says. "I had no choice about whether they can haul dirt, merely along which route." He also points out that, with all the other issues in his district and his campaign for city attorney, he has spent a great deal of time on this particular conflict.
Thirty years ago, Joanna Carson moved into Bel-Air when she and Johnny Carson were newly married. "I used to walk outside and see deer," she says. "I was enchanted with the trees, the wildlife. For many years, I helped care for the trees . . . we hired people to trim the ivy away so they wouldn't be choked. Other than that, we enjoyed our little wild ravine."
Owls are often spotted in the area, as well as squirrels, raccoons and songbirds. It's a narrow slice of wilderness in the midst of urban sprawl. Hadar Plafkin of the Environmental Review Board, which makes recommendations for or against the permits, has received more than 30 letters (including one from this reporter's mother, Nancy Reagan) urging the board to spare the ravine. One letter goes so far as to call the area a garden of Eden.
In her letter of protest, resident Lillian Nall mentioned "the inspiring and uplifting pastoral beauty of nature, the abundance of century-old trees, foliage, wildlife" as reasons why she chooses to live in Bel-Air. "I am deeply concerned with the far-reaching consequences of this proposed project," she wrote.
Actor Robert Stack, a resident since 1948, called Bel-Air "the garden spot of Southern California" in his letter. He was echoed by letters from Univision chief Jerry Perenchio: "This [project] would be completely out of character with the surrounding neighborhood," and from Stephen Bollenbach, chief executive of Hilton Hotels Corp.: "We live in a beautiful residential area where the homes are properly sized for their lots."
Sherle North, who has lived in the neighborhood for 46 years, urges the board to "review our deeply felt anguish."
But the Broidys also feel anguished at this escalating conflict. All they want is their "dream house," which is based on the 106-acre historic Phipps Estate in Old Westbury, N.Y. Broidy calls the neighbors' opposition baffling. "What we have now is people not wanting to talk to us," he says, emphasizing that the couple has tried to plead their case to the neighbors in person.
The neighbors respond that the Broidys' plans were already completed by the time anyone was informed of them, so the couple's overtures are not being made in the spirit of negotiating a compromise.
The Broidys hired attorney George Mihlsten of Latham and Watkins, who commissioned an independent environmental report on the project. When contacted about the house, Mihlsten said he would call back but never did. He later did not return a second call.
In some ways, the report prepared by Envicom Corp. comes close to supporting some of the neighbors' concerns. It says that the "impacts on the remnant oak woodland include removal of 10 oak trees (plus two unhealthy oaks) within the ravine and replacement of those areas with landscape, pavement and structures. Another 12 trees would experience encroachment within their dripline, while three oak trees would remain in the ravine unaffected by the project."
Alden Kelley, the arborist hired by the neighbors, says that encroaching on the dripline of a tree basically means cutting into the root system. He doubts whether any trees will survive the construction, including the boxed nursery trees that the Broidys plan to plant after construction, because of chemical changes that would be made to the soil.
About wildlife in the ravine, Envicom's report says, "While none of the species that would be affected are state or federally listed, potential habitat of a few sensitive but unlisted wildlife species would be displaced."
Robin Broidy says, "We're not preventing wildlife from coming in and out of the property." And as for the ravine, she says, "If you really look at these trees, they're not the prettiest. They're skinny, they're scrawny, they're ugly. I can see how people looking at it from the top of the bridge could think that this is a beautiful ravine. But if you go in there, it's not a beautiful ravine. It's ivy-choked. It's desiccated. It's diseased."
So what now? The Broidys are determined to stay, even if many of the neighbors shun them. "If some of them don't like us, so be it," Robin Broidy says. "I can live with that."
She might have to. There will be more meetings, escalating emotions, possibly even legal battles down the line. Might we see wealthy, well-known residents standing in front of bulldozers with picket signs? Don't rule it out.