Windermere project denied, for now

The City Council on Monday denied building permits for a proposed two-story hillside house in a Flintridge neighborhood and directed the applicant to significantly reduce the size before resubmitting the project.

Councilman Stephen De Guercio recused himself, leaving a 4-0 vote.

The decision came after a marathon public hearing that spanned two City Council meetings and included presentations by city staff, architects, engineers, lawyers and neighbors.

The controversial proposal includes the development of an empty 1-acre lot and unimproved public street between Hampstead Road and Inverness Drive, just south of Sugar Loaf Drive. Dr. Philip Merritt, a longtime La Cañada resident who bought the property in 2005, proposed building a two-story, 7,447-square-foot house, about 2,000 square feet larger than permitted by the city's guidelines considering the slope.

Merritt also wants to access his new home via Windermere Place, a "paper road" that was plotted on maps dating to the 1920s but never developed. The street would be built at Merritt's expense but then handed over to the city for maintenance.

Initially the Planning Department refused to process the application with Windermere Place as part of the proposal. Merritt sued, and the city settled, agreeing that it would not deny the project based on the new street alone.

In April, the Planning Commission approved the hillside development. But four neighbors filed two appeals seeking to block it. The proposal would have dramatic environmental impacts on the site and on the neighborhood at large, they argued. The excessive excavation and compacting of soils, and the grading of the street and hillside necessitate further study, the opponents said.

"It really kind of boggles my mind that we are not talking about an environmental impact report," said attorney James Evans, who spoke on behalf of appellant Sean McCarthy.

Appellant Fred Engler questioned why the construction of Windermere Place wouldn't go out to bid in accordance with public contracting laws. And appellant Soren Madsen said the impact to trees on and near the site had been underestimated. Others argued that the proposed house didn't fit the neighborhood.

Attorney Arnold Graham, speaking on Merritt's behalf, said the scale of the project had already been reduced to the point where it "was squeezed pretty dry." In addition, the proposed house would be a beautiful addition to a neighborhood dotted with large-scale homes, he said.

"Keep in mind that before Dr. Merritt bought this property, it was a blight," Graham said. "It was a safety blight on the community, it was a hazard, it was a trap."

Councilman Dave Spence agreed that the development was not out of character with neighboring homes, and said the neighbors could work with Merritt to design a mutually appealing house.

However, other council members said they could not authorize such a significant variance in the volume of the house unless there were some extraordinary circumstances involved in developing the lot.

"I see no special conditions or characteristics that justify making that finding," Councilwoman Laura Olhasso said. "Bring it back closer to what the guidelines call for, and I imagine I could make those findings — but not with over 2,000 square feet larger than what would be allowed."

Council members encouraged Merritt to reduce the size of the house and resubmit the proposal to the city.

Copyright © 2019, La Cañada Valley Sun
EDITION: California | U.S. & World