The battle over the future of a Laurel Canyon road took another twist Friday, when city lawmakers backtracked on an earlier decision that had stymied plans to pave it.
In September, the Board of Public Works voted to allow paving and other improvements on Bulwer Road -- a dirt roadway that has become a serious battleground for neighbors worried about future development on the mountainous stretch between Cahuenga Pass and Topanga Canyon.
The area has long been a sore spot for residents: Bulwer had been the site of two homes that were left unfinished for decades, making them a magnet for graffiti, squatters and parties.
The two homes were finally completed five years ago after a new developer took over the project. Nearby residents have been wary of any added development along the top of Laurel Canyon, insisting that an environmental study needs to be done to assess how more construction would affect the scenic area.
The company that owns the homes, Bulwer Drive LLC, recently sought permission to pave the road at its own expense, saying it was unable to sell the houses because of "the untenable conditions of the roadway," according to a city report. City engineering officials stated that the existing roadway was hazardous, pointing to erosion problems during heavy rains in the past.
Engineering officials said the changes did not require an environmental report. Neighbors argued that the road should not be paved without requiring such a study, citing concerns about how excavating before paving might affect winter landslides on the hillside.
Some also questioned whether the ultimate goal of paving the road was to help sell the two existing homes, as a city report stated, or to smooth the way for future development.
"I call it the road to development," said Fred Karger, one of the nearby residents who opposed paving the road. "It's a foot in the door."
However, Public Works commission President Kevin James pointed out that a fire department official had publicly testified that the department would require a wider road than commissioners were being asked to approve if any additional development was pursued.
The law firm representing the developer, Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday morning.
After neighbors raised their concerns, Councilman Tom LaBonge sought to overturn the decision allowing the road to be paved, saying it faced "unresolved issues." Under the City Charter, the council has the power to overtake commission decisions -- a power it uses sparingly.
The council sided with LaBonge, voting in late September to veto the Public Works decision. Last month, however, the city got a "written threat of litigation" over the council vote, according to a brief memo to L.A. lawmakers from City Atty. Mike Feuer.
Feuer spokesman Rob Wilcox said the office could not comment further on the legal threat. On Friday, the council voted 10 to 0 to reverse its September decision and let the paving occur.