Calabasas crackdown on old homes has owners crying foul
Calabasas is known for its gated neighborhoods and its wealthy residents — people like Justin Bieber, Tommy Lee and Kourtney Kardashian.
But for the last few years, the city’s attention has been focused on people living in some of its oldest houses, built decades ago on the mountainous south side when the area was under the jurisdiction of Los Angeles County.
City officials are now cracking down on houses they consider substandard.
Among the latest cases is 67-year-old Joanne Finazzo, whose home of 35 years was slapped with nearly two dozen code violations after city inspectors showed up to check on the septic system.
That started a chain of events that ended with the bank foreclosing on the house and then deciding to bulldoze the 1939 structure after its own dispute with the city.
Finazzo said her problems began in 2009, when inspectors noticed her longtime companion, Chet Allen, standing in front of their home on Valdez Road as he worked on his septic system’s leach line. When the inspectors asked to take a look, Allen invited them onto his property.
He was advised that every structure on the site was in violation of the city’s current building code. When Allen reminded the inspectors that the house was enlarged in 1952 and in 1982 under county permits and thus was “grandfathered in” when Calabasas incorporated in 1991, they shook their heads.
Allen, a retired contractor who had done stone work on the property, became stressed when the couple received a 30-page list of violations that he figured could cost up to $150,000 to remediate, Finazzo said. He died a few months later at age 82.
Before his death, he and Finazzo were required to spend $373 per week to pump their septic tank because they had a tenant renting the guest quarters. When the couple was told to evict the tenant from space that lacked permits, the weekly pumping requirement was relaxed to once a month. But without the rental income, the couple took out a reverse mortgage to help pay their bills.
The bank eventually foreclosed on the property, and Finazzo moved to a Woodland Hills townhouse near where she works in a medical billing office. But the bank authorized her to sell the house and its one-acre site. A real estate company quickly found three potential buyers.
The city quashed any sale, according to real estate agent Michael Ansari. “Buyers say the city is not willing to give any guidance to remedy the violations. The city got angry and sent us a notice to either [comply] or demolish the structures,” he said.
“It’s going to be cleared to dirt, probably [this] week when the city issues a demolition permit. The current owner, a bank, doesn’t want to fight the city. I had it on the market for six months and opened a few escrows. But the city was really not cooperating at all.”
City Manager Tony Coroalles denied that Calabasas was singling out older homes to make room for new development.
He said Allen was caught digging a ditch to funnel runoff from an overworked septic tank into a storm drain. He said Ansari’s potential buyers had access to a list of code violations that they would have to deal with if they acquired the property.
“We advised them to bring in experts to evaluate the property and come back to us with a plan,” Coroalles said. “We’re not averse to anybody buying the property. But no city can guide a buyer through the process.”
Another rural resident, Robert Hahn, was ordered to tear down a portion of a Dale Road house in Old Topanga that he has lived in for 35 years after a tenant he was evicting called the city and complained of a sewage smell on the property.
When officials came to investigate, they slapped Hahn, a 67-year-old contractor, with 100 pages of violations, even though Hahn argued that the structure was built in 1928 under proper county permits.
Coroalles said Hahn remains in his home, although the city has recorded the notice of violations on his deed. That means any future buyer will have to bring the property up to code.
The city’s sewage crusade began in mid-2010 when a team that included sheriff’s deputies descended on a 60-acre Stokes Canyon ranch. Officials ordered the pioneering Smith family’s water and power cut off on grounds that those living on the ranch “may be unlawfully disposing of human waste.”
“We’ve been here 100 years.... We helped organize the [local] water district and school board, the chamber of commerce and the Calabasas Pumpkin Festival. We are being treated like common criminals,” complained Lloyd Smith, 73, a retired Los Angeles Zoo animal keeper who was left homeless by the action. “They want to turn this into a gated community for rich people.”
The specter of more gated neighborhoods is common among Calabasas old-timers. Many in Old Topanga speculate that a new sewer system could open a vast empty space between Old Topanga Canyon Road and the Calabasas Highlands area for new development.
The Hahn and Allen-Finazzo properties would provide handy access points to a new neighborhood, said Jody Thomas, president of the 38-family Old Topanga Homeowners Assn. Members have long suspected that the city’s goal was to extend a municipal sewer line up Old Topanga Canyon Road that would allow for greater housing density.
Neighbor Toby Keeler, a longtime Calabasas resident who served on the city’s first planning commission in 1992, noted that the city’s first municipal code took pains to help preserve the feel of “mountainous areas where existing parcels were created before modern zoning and subdivision regulations.”
Although the city listed 31 of the city’s 120 private septic systems as problematic and 11 as “failed,” it suspended its septic inspection program in 2012. Officials emphasized, however, that existing violations would remain valid and owners would be required to upgrade their property.
But the question of whether the city respects the integrity of county building permits issued before incorporation remains touchy.
Calabasas officials have announced plans to annex a gated community of 20 homes in a 146-acre area north of the Ventura Freeway that includes several older commercial structures that do not meet current city codes.
Coroalles, the city manager, has pledged that existing structures “would be grandfathered in.... There is no danger that the city is going to do anything with any of the structures or properties unless the landowners want to.”
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