Even by the rarefied standards of the Westside, where grand houses are commonly razed so that grander houses can rise in their place, the rumble in Rustic Canyon has set a new benchmark.
Here in this woodsy pocket of Pacific Palisades, a resident’s huge, two-story, Tuscan-style addition to his 2,000-square-foot, corner house has ignited a long-running legal battle over the arcane subject of frontyard setbacks.
In 2001, Mehr Beglari, a contractor, began building an addition to his home at 909 Greentree Road.
Prominent neighbors -- including two Los Angeles County Superior Court judges -- challenged the project in court, contending that the 6,550-foot addition was too close to the street. They won, with a judge determining that the city should revoke Beglari’s certificate of occupancy for the addition.
Undaunted, Beglari made a further, carefully calculated, change on Greentree Road. He built a canopy in front of the brick chimney of a house he had purchased at 921 Greentree, two doors down from his residence.
City building officials said the simple structure reduced the setback requirement on Greentree, making Beglari’s original addition to his own home compliant with city rules despite the court’s earlier ruling.
Last week, as appalled neighbors watched, Beglari bulldozed not only the canopy 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 921 Greentree site.
Many of Beglari’s neighbors are livid, saying he was able both to keep his illegal addition and to secure permission to build a second massive house by using an exception in the building codes. They contend that Beglari built the canopy purely to change the setback along the street and that the building department was aware of that.
“We have two instances in a row now where they’re illegally manipulating a formula and consistently getting it wrong over and over again,” said Ronald Oster, a lawyer and plaintiff in the case against Beglari. “You have to ask yourself why.”
Beglari said the dispute “is nothing but harassment.”
“We’re not bothering anybody,” he said. “We’re not destroying the neighborhood look. In fact, we improved it.”
Robert C. Steinbach, assistant chief of the Building and Safety Department, said Beglari and building officials have followed “the rules and regulations in front of us” and adhered to a formula prescribed by the Orange County Judge David C. Velasquez. The case was transferred to Orange County because two Los Angeles judges were plaintiffs.
“Even if the department knew that his intention was to build [the canopy], change the setback and do exactly what he’s doing now, we do not have the mechanism to stop him from building that” canopy, Steinbach said.
The city’s code establishes requirements for how far back the front of a house must sit from the street. But on many streets, existing houses have widely differing setbacks because they were built before the code requirements took effect. For those streets, the city established a formula that allows a builder to determine an average depth of frontyards on a given block.
In the Beglari case, the Orange County judge determined that the addition at 909 Greentree violated code because it was 14 feet too close to the street. That was affirmed by an appeals court, which ruled that the building department had improperly applied the formula differently for Beglari than for anybody else.
Despite the court rulings, the city determined that the canopy that Beglari built at 921 Greentree altered the prevailing setback for the block and therefore justified his original addition.
On Wednesday, the opponents took the case back to Velasquez, who in a preliminary ruling agreed that the city appeared to be disobeying a court order. He ordered Beglari and the city to file a response and he scheduled a hearing for June 8. If he affirms his preliminary ruling at that time, he will set a date for a contempt trial.
The dispute has roiled the normally quiet canyon, which residents view as a bucolic oasis amid the city’s hubbub. Like other areas, the neighborhood has seen dramatic changes as newcomers and veteran residents tear down single-story, ranch-style houses and build stately, two-story mansions.
Soon after Beglari’s addition was built, resident Laura Baker wrote to building officials that it “looks entirely out of scale, as though a small hotel had been dropped into a neighborhood of ranch houses.”
Many of the houses date from decades ago, and well-heeled buyers are willing to pay dearly for bigger houses with modern amenities.
According to David Horwitz, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, houses in the canyon are selling for $1,000 a square foot. Across the street from where he and his wife, Jacki, live on Greentree, a new 6,000-square-foot house just sold for about $5.8 million.
In his view, Beglari’s maneuvers are geared toward building more square footage so he can make a bigger profit.
“We all grew up believing that we live in a place where there are laws and one has to follow them,” Horwitz said. “Here we’re left with a city that could care less about a legal decision.... You have a building department that’s totally out of control.”
Horwitz said he and the four other plaintiffs have collectively spent about $250,000 on the court battle. Like-minded neighbors have kicked in tens of thousands of dollars.
Horwitz and other residents say they have complained for years to city officials that Beglari and the building department have misapplied the code. John Rosenfeld, another plaintiff, said the city has relied on an exception in the code that simply does not apply in this case.
“They’ve taken a building that was lawful and unlawfully modified it and now claim that legitimizes his house on the corner,” Rosenfeld said.
“I get the sense that Beglari and his allies in the building department think this is all some sort of big game, where they can make up the rules as they go along,” he added.
As for Beglari, he says his opponents seem to have a personal vendetta against him. He said other houses in the neighborhood have been expanded with little outcry.
“We just want to be left alone and move on with our lives,” he said. “This is mind-boggling that this has gone this far.... To go so far that somebody wants to tear up your home ... why?”