Los Angeles' top building official has been ordered to appear for a contempt of court trial after a judge found that the city ignored its own zoning rules in approving a controversial home remodel in Pacific Palisades.
The extreme decision caught city leaders off guard and prompted the Building and Safety Department immediately to revoke the permit for the already completed $1-million addition. Officials also ordered that work be halted on a separate project the homeowner is constructing to replace a nearby house that he recently tore down.
Although the case involves a single zoning dispute in the Rustic Canyon area, it is being closely watched by homeowner groups and builders across the city amid growing protests over new development in hillsides and canyons.
In recent years, city building officials have faced a barrage of criticism for approving construction, particularly in sensitive hilly areas, that many residents consider unsafe or untenably large. Last week, Councilman Tom LaBonge proposed stricter rules that would make it more difficult to build in canyon and hillside areas.
Critics say permits are awarded too quickly in many cases, before the possible consequences of the building can be fully understood. They also contend that building officials sometimes ignore code restrictions or take advantage of loopholes, in their zeal to make it easier for developers to get projects through the approval process.
A longtime target of such complaints is Andrew A. Adelman, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety since 1997, who has won praise from many developers, architects and engineers for streamlining the city's permitting process.
Adelman is at the center of the Rustic Canyon issue, and he and the city will have to answer to the charges that they acted in contempt of court for allowing the project.
Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the city attorney's office, said it was "very rare," if not unheard of, for the head of a city department to be called for a contempt trial.
Richard Riordan, who as mayor hired Adelman, rose to his defense.
"Andrew Adelman was a godsend to the economy of Los Angeles," Riordan said. Under Adelman's direction, the Building and Safety Department has drastically chopped the amount of time needed to secure a permit, he said. Many simple permits can now be obtained in an hour. That, in turn, has resulted in a dramatic increase in revenue for the department.
Riordan said he thought it unfair that Adelman should be ordered to trial for contempt.
"If you issue thousands of permits, you're going to make a mistake now and then," Riordan said. "Andrew Adelman shouldn't be held responsible for every one."
The long-running Rustic Canyon dispute, which has pitted neighbor against neighbor in the woodsy enclave, involves Mehr Beglari, a developer who years ago secured city approval to build a massive multistory addition that nearly quadrupled the size of his 2,000-square-foot house at the corner of Greentree and Brooktree roads.
Prominent neighbors, including two judges and an attorney, challenged the project in court in 2002, contending that the addition was 14 feet too close to the street. They said Beglari improperly manipulated a formula for determining frontyard setbacks.
The city's code established requirements for how far back the front of a house must sit from the street. On many streets, however, existing houses have widely differing setbacks because they were built before the requirements took effect. For such streets, the city established a formula that allows a builder to determine an average frontyard depth for a given block.
The plaintiffs prevailed, with Judge David C. Velasquez of the Orange County Superior Court determining that the city improperly applied the formula and should revoke the permit and the certificate of occupancy for the addition. (The case had been transferred to Orange County because two plaintiffs are Los Angeles Superior Court judges.) An appeals court affirmed the ruling.
Six months later, the city notified Beglari that it was revoking the documents. But it did not enforce the action.
Instead, it awarded Beglari a permit to build a canopy in front of the brick chimney of another house he had purchased on Greentree, two doors from his other residence. With the carefully calculated addition of that small structure, opponents said, Beglari reduced the amount of setback required for houses on his block. That, in turn, justified his original addition.
Early this year, building officials reinstated Beglari's permit and certificate of occupancy for the addition.
In May, flabbergasted neighbors watched as Beglari bulldozed not only the canopy that had been erected but also the house to which it was attached. He plans to build a 7,000-square-foot house and three-car garage at the site.
The outraged opponents took the case back to court. After a hearing on Thursday, Velasquez said the opponents had shown "probable cause" that the city and Adelman were in contempt of court for failing to comply with the judge's original order.
The judge ordered Adelman and the city to appear at an arraignment July 13, when he would set a date for the contempt trial.
On Friday, the building department crafted letters to Beglari indicating that it was again revoking the permits and certificate of occupancy for the addition to his original house and that it was putting him on notice that it planned to revoke the permits for the new house. It also ordered that work on that project be halted immediately.
Ray Chan, the building department's executive officer, said, "Even though we believe that we issued the permits correctly, and the city attorney believes that, and the Planning Commission believes that, the court believes differently, and we will follow the court's direction."
Mark E. Baker, an attorney for Beglari, said the department appeared to be devising an "exit strategy" for the case.
"I don't know what the plaintiffs want other than the destruction of about 18 feet of the Beglaris' home," Baker said. "What I think they want is the Beglaris out, period."
Baker added that he wondered who would represent the city of Los Angeles before the judge.
"In my view," he said, "having an Orange County judge tell the city of Los Angeles what to do merits Mayor Villaraigosa's attention."
Plaintiffs have vowed to pursue the case to ensure that the department enforces its decision to revoke the permits.
"Only now, when Adelman and the department face a contempt trial, do they rush to get on the right side of this thing," said John Rosenfeld, a plaintiff.