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Cries in the Canyon : Residents Say Bel-Air Project Shows Laxity in City Regulations

May 01, 1988|KENNETH J. GARCIA | Times Staff Writer

Long before the bulldozers began their march along the hillside and the daily drone of the grading equipment filled the air, Hoag Canyon in Bel-Air served as a natural barrier to the encroaching developments of the outside world.

Many developers tried and ultimately failed in their quest to build million-dollar homes along the lush canyon's ridge, stymied by geologic problems posed by the rugged landscape in the Santa Monica Mountains and the political pressure generated by local conservationists.

But after eight years of negotiations with the local homeowners association, one determined developer decided to tackle the top of Hoag Canyon. When the deal was completed in 1985, local homeowners had agreed they would not oppose the 284-home Bel-Air Crest development, south of Mulholland Drive, just east of the San Diego Freeway, as long as all but nine homes were placed behind the mountain ridge, beyond their line of sight.

Feeling of Betrayal

Today, the ridge has been sliced and flattened by more than 1,000 feet and serves as the focus of "before" and "after" pictures taken by shaken hillside homeowners. The number of custom-home lots along the ridge has nearly quadrupled. And the members of the Roscomare Valley Assn. say they've been betrayed.

The scarred hillside in what is considered one of the most beautiful sections of the Santa Monica Mountains has become the center of a citywide battle over development project rules that, in many cases, allow developers to modify plans without notifying residents or holding public hearings.

"We were naive," said writer/producer Mark Slade, head of the Save Hoag Canyon Committee, originally formed in the late 1970s. "We believed that the developer would follow the original agreement. Now, we're at a point where we're just trying to save as much of the canyon as we can. It took thousands of years to create that area, and then overnight it's gone."

The story of what has happened in Hoag Canyon mirrors in many ways the story of Los Angeles. It is the tale of two opposing forces--conservation-minded homeowners and business-minded developers--speeding toward an unavoidable conflict. And it is a story of deal-making and negotiations, trade-offs and compromise.

At its root, the story of Hoag (pronounced hog ) Canyon revolves around the complicated process involving tract maps, zoning ordinances, building modifications, and most important, the notification requirements for city officials involved in approving the plans.

"This case points out how you lose your neighborhood," said Laura M. Lake, president of Friends of Westwood, a citizens group which represents more than 800 families in the 5th City Council District. "It just slips away from you in the middle of the night because no one was told."

When the original public hearing on the Goldrich & Kest Industries development was scheduled, all property owners within 300 feet of the outside boundary of the project were notified, as required by law. The hearing was held after countless negotiation sessions with the developers, who wanted to construct the $250-million project with as little opposition as possible. In return for limiting the number of homes on the ridge top, members of the Roscomare Valley Assn. agreed not to oppose the development.

But just three months after the tentative tract map was approved in March, 1984, the Culver City-based developers requested a series of modifications to the development that increased the amount of grading on the ridge, increased the number of million-dollar-view lots on the top of the canyon and redesigned key segments of the project.

No notice of the modifications, which considerably changed the scope of the development that had taken nearly a decade to hammer out, ever went out to homeowners in the area.

City planning officials say it was an oversight. Even though the law doesn't require them to send out hearing notices to residents in the neighborhood, they say they usually do. But in this case, none were sent.

"We just don't know what happened in this case," said Gary Morris, deputy director of the city Planning Department's Advisory Agency. "For some reason, no notices went out. It just didn't happen."

Morris said that at the modification hearing, when the developers requested approval to lop off more of the ridge to make room for more lots, city planning officials never raised any concerns about the increased grading because they "were not aware of a concern about preserving this rather remote area in its natural condition."

Unusually Large Grading

Two years passed before residents along Linda Flora Drive, which faces one side of the ridge, noticed that the grading seemed unusually large.

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