Op-Ed: Development game threatens community

A few weeks back in a guest column, I commented on a local councilman's 2011 statement that at least some La Cañada Flintridge building ordinances are as much guidelines as they are hard-and-fast rules. My point in doing so was not to single out Steve del Guercio for stating the obvious. It was to make the rest of us aware just how quickly what we hold dear can slip through our fingers if we do not pay attention to the slow-drip change that is constantly taking place all around us.

If it works well, democracy is a bottoms-up form of government that balances the common good against individual interests. In the specific hillside ordinance case cited by Del Guercio last December, a very steeply sloped lot was purchased by a private individual, presumably with full knowledge of existing hillside building regulations. Some time thereafter, the property owner requested a building permit for a structure that far exceeded long-standing rules. After considerable discussion and deliberation, a smaller building was approved by the City Council — but one that still substantially exceeded the hillside ordinance for the lot in question.

“I think it's a guideline, and to say we're only having a strict enforcement would be saying you can't build a house on this lot,” Del Guercio stated in the Dec. 21, 2011 edition of the Valley Sun. “I don't think the city can impose that.”

Why on earth not?

There are parcels all over La Cañada that have been for sale for as long as I can remember. Most of them are in hillside areas where the building codes are intentionally restrictive. The result is a sense of spacious community, a far cry from the mega-mansioned West Los Angeles we fled 20-plus years ago, a densely packed environment open to the highest bidder, a place where every neighbor has a direct view into your living room.

In a nutshell, what happened in the case that triggered Del Guercio's comments has been happening all over La Cañada Flintridge ever since we moved here in 1986. The game is played as follows: Buy a lot, submit a plan that dramatically exceeds city ordinances, hillside or otherwise, then negotiate a compromise. The city gets its fees and the new homeowner gets what he probably wanted in the first place.

It's a win-win, according to our elected leaders, and from the outside looking in, it appears to be inexorable. Most of us simply throw up our hands, convinced that there is nothing we can do about it.

Our city is fortunate to have a budget surplus. We are, therefore, in the enviable position of being able to control the topography and secluded feel of our neighborhoods if we choose to do so. But this is a democracy. Perhaps I am an exception, just another cranky old man who doesn't like change of any kind.

Maybe most of the people who live in La Cañada Flintridge really do want two 7-Elevens. Maybe a majority of our neighbors truly want to be able to see into each other's living rooms 24/7. This is, after all, the era of Facebook and reality TV. Privacy and seclusion are going out of fashion. Maybe it's time for La Cañada to throw in the towel and give up on maintaining a secluded, forested oasis scant miles from downtown Los Angeles. Then again, maybe not.

Last time I wrote a guest column, I received quite a lot of email. This time, I would encourage readers to simultaneously submit letters to the editor of the Valley Sun. Let's exercise our basic rights and approach the issue publicly and resolve it in democratic terms from the bottom up, not from the top down. Majority rules: If it turns out that I'm wrong, so be it.

But I don't think that I am. Either way, it would be shame on me for not at least trying to preserve something that is as unique and special as La Cañada in these days of numbing conformity and celebrity wannabe lifestyles.

ROBERT LANG can be reached via email at rlang2000@hotmail.com.

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