Council orders cover-up of Mar Vista project

City orders grading, landscaping changes at 17,000-squarefoot hillside home; effort to revoke permits underway.For the second time this month, the City Council took issue with a 17,000-square-foot home under construction on Mar Vista Avenue in South Laguna.

On Tuesday, the council ordered changes to grading and landscaping plans that exposed more of the project than had been approved. On Nov. 1, the council issued a stop-work order for the project, which has been a lightning rod for criticism by neighbors and community members because of its size.

Property owner and developer Gerald Messineo was instructed Tuesday to make the exposed retaining wall consistent with an October 2004 council-approved proposal and to come up with a landscaping plan that screens the project from public view, with no fewer than 40 trees.

"DRB [design review board] approved exposed walls of 14 to 15 feet high, but now we have exposed walls of 20 to 21 feet," said Councilwoman Jane Egly, who also proposed changes in the landscaping plan.

The council's decision overturned an administrative decision by John Montgomery, director of the Community Development Department, to issue a building permit for the project.

Tuesday's hearing took more than three hours and included two closed sessions, at which apparently no action was taken. The law requires actions to be announced.

The stop-work order for the project will not be lifted until the council has an opportunity to hold a hearing to determine if there is probable cause for revocation of the building permit.

South Laguna resident Elizabeth Phillips had appealed Montgomery's decision, claiming the plans he approved did not conform to the design review board approval and the subsequent City Council's directive for the project and that Montgomery erred in issuing a building permit.

The hearing was a continuation of the item from the Nov. 1 council meeting.

Messineo spokesman Allen Haynie said at both hearings that the changes were made due to conditions imposed on the project by the council and consultation with the Fire Department and were not out of conformance with the intent of the council or the board.

Montgomery said he concurred.

On Tuesday, Haynie said that native habitat, which didn't have to be removed after the grading changes, covers more of the walls than the dirt would have.

"But it's not permanent," Egly said. "Dirt is."

The actual wall height didn't change, but the altered grading exposed much more of the vertical surface.

"We were told that changes in the landscaping changed the walls, but now we are told it was a grading change, and that disturbs me," Councilwoman Cheryl Kinsman said. "We were misled. I no longer believe the landscaping changed the exposure."

However, the council did not accept Phillips' contention that the changes warranted a return of the project to the design review board.

Phillips' position was supported Tuesday by 15 critics of the project, who opposed it for variety of reasons, including the alleged location of the property on an earthquake fault.

"If it gives, it could make Northridge look small," said Anita Dobbs, whose concern was for the homes below the project.

Bluebird Canyon resident Leah Vasquez said environmental considerations were inadequate.

"I am hoping the city will make a decision based on facts and not as a favor to a developer friend," Peter Walter said.

Barbara Granger said a group of Laguna Beach residents has retained Coast Law Group, which recommended returning the project to the board and including the whole project in the review. The project includes approved plans for 11,333 square feet of habitable space and a 4,769-square-foot garage.

The scope of the appeal hearing did not include the proposed buildings, but that didn't deter Arnold Hano.

"The question is why this monster house is even before you," Hano said. "Thirty years ago, Howard Dawson [a past councilman], who was no conservation activist, said small is beautiful. Please no more monsters. No more monsters."

Mayor Elizabeth Pearson-Schneider said the Mar Vista project was in the pipeline before the city's "mansionization" ordinance was passed and therefore not subject to it.

"To send [the project] back to DRB, we would have to prove fraud," Councilwoman Toni Iseman said at the first hearing on the appeal, Nov. 2. "I don't think its fraud, but was there misrepresentation? The biggest selling point [for the project] was that you will not know this 17,000-square-foot house is even there."

However, Iseman had put on the agenda an item to consider revocation for the design review approval and the coastal development permit for the project.

Iseman seconded a motion to table the item.

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