HERMOSA BEACH — A coalition of environmentalists and foes of increased density launched an all-out offensive this week against a proposed small housing development that would include portions of a hillside sand dune, but the impassioned residents were unable to persuade the City Council to bury the project.
More than 100 residents crowded into City Hall on Tuesday night for a four-hour hearing on the development, which environmentalists fear will destroy a sand dune just west of Valley Park Avenue near 20th Street that some of them hoped would become a sanctuary for the endangered El Segundo blue butterfly.
The residents presented petitions with more than 400 signatures opposing the development, which first came under attack last summer when a condominium project was proposed for the site. The revised project consists of eight single-family homes, expected to sell for $450,000 each.
"We would rather have blue butterflies than houses up that hill," said Betty Evans, civic beautification chairman of the Hermosa Garden Club and a leader in the effort to save the sand dune. "We have a glorious plan of restoring buckwheat patches to the sand hill and transporting some eggs from the blue butterfly."
Residents also complained that the subdivision would tax deteriorating city sewers, bring traffic and congestion to the family-oriented neighborhood and endanger homes on the hill above the project on Loma Drive by weakening the hillside.
Above all, however, they opposed plans by the city to vacate a 40-foot wide unimproved easement, known as Power Street, that cuts along the steep hillside, including the dune. The "ghost street," as it is known among residents, was dedicated to the city near the turn of the century, but was never built because of the steep grade, city officials said.
Evans said the unbuilt street has become a home to unusual plants, birds and insects. Rick Rogers, an entomologists at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History who collects insects from the dune, said the area is an extension of the dunes in El Segundo, which residents there have been fighting to spare from development.
About 9,400 square feet of the easement would be given to the developer, Kavanaugh Development Co., while the remaining 22,000 square feet would revert to other properties adjacent to it. Cheryl Vargo, a consultant hired by the developer, said two of the eight houses would cut into the hillside, making the easement an essential ingredient of the project. Currently, there are three houses on the site, all of which would be torn down.
The council--relying on reports from the city's Planning Department, advice from the city attorney, a unanimous recommendation from the Planning Commission to approve the project, and architectural renderings provided by the developer--dismissed many of the residents' concerns as unfounded.
Public Works Director Tony Antich said the project would actually improve the city's sewer system by adding new lines beneath the development, and Planning Director Michael Schubach said the development will add more parking than required by the city's code. Schubach also said the houses will be built on 5,600-square-foot lots, which are larger than the average single-family lot in the area.
The bulk of the project, Schubach said, will be built on flat land at the base of the hill, leading the planning staff to conclude that the environmentally sensitive dune will not be affected.
"We were concerned about the hillside, but it is not likely that they will be building on the side of the cliff," he said.
Added Vargo: "What is being proposed here will have a minimal impact on the hill. . . . Essentially, this subdivision will save the hill significantly."
After three hours of public testimony and one hour of discussion among themselves, the council members voted unanimously to reject an appeal against the subdivision that was filed by the residents. The Planning Commission had approved the project last month.
Residents Could Buy Property
In an effort to spare some of the dune, Councilwoman June Williams asked that a condition be imposed on the project that would require the houses to be built at least 25 feet from the rear of the property line. Mayor Tony DeBellis, who proposed approving the project, rejected the condition, however, saying it was too severe an infringement on the rights of the property owner.
"I believe this is property that belongs to this person and he should be able to do this," said DeBellis, who suggested that residents raise money to buy the property if they really want to preserve it.
DeBellis said the council could not reject the development on environmental grounds because former City Councilman Jack Belasco, who appealed the Planning Commission's approval of the project, had not appealed the environmental report on it. City Atty. James Lough said the deadline for an appeal on that report had passed. He warned that the developers' due-process rights would be violated if the council considered the environmental report.
Still concerned about the environmental sensitivity of the area, however, the council required that the city conduct an environmental review of the eight lots when the developer determines exactly how he will divide the property. Opponents of the project will also have one last chance to speak against it, when the council holds a separate hearing next month on the formal vacation of the unbuilt portion of Power Street.