Ever since a developer purchased a rugged 26-acre coastal canyon in Pacific Palisades last year, plans to develop the site have been shrouded in secrecy.
Now they are also clouded by controversy.
California Coastal Commission officials said last week that the developer may not be able to continue geologic testing in Las Pulgas Canyon unless he complies with the conditions they imposed on him two months ago. Although the commission granted the developer a permit to do the testing, it has refused to actually issue the permit until he complies.
Commission staff members said the developer, Neil Senturia, had requested some last-minute changes in the permit conditions, which were levied by the board after an investigation revealed that Senturia had illegally graded the slopes in the canyon. Coastal Commission Chairman Michael Wornum earlier called it "one of the most serious violations I have ever seen."
Senturia was ordered by commissioners in January to fill in the roads that he cut into the landslide-plagued canyon and to post a $12,000 performance bond to ensure that he would comply with the commission's directive. But the bond was received late, and an environmental watchdog group, Save Las Pulgas Canyon Inc., complained that the developer had failed to provide it with restoration plans as promised.
'Too Late to Fix'
"Before I can issue a permit, I have to make sure that they have done everything that they said they would do in order to comply with the conditions," said Pam Emerson, a commission staff analyst. "I can't issue part of a permit. Now is too late to fix a mistake if they've made one."
Commission staffers said Senturia had requested a change in the landscaping plans included in the restoration project. Emerson said a decision on whether to grant the coastal permit probably would be made sometime this week.
The permit snag was just the latest problem to flare up in the long-running dispute over the fate of the canyon. Residents of the nearly 170 homes above the canyon, hit by a major landslide six years ago, say they fear that any further work in the canyon may jeopardize their hillside residences.
And backers of the group trying to preserve the canyon as open space say Senturia has purposely delayed the restoration project, which was supposed to have been completed last week. In addition, they question whether the $12,000 performance bond was enough to restore the huge road cuts in the canyon.
"I think he's trying to get by as cheaply as he can," said Ron Wolf, president of Save Las Pulgas. "In my wildest imagination, I can't see $12,000 coming close to paying for the work necessary to restore the canyon."
Senturia could not be reached for comment last week. However, his attorney responded to the charges by sending a letter to the group accusing one of its members of trespassing on the property. Wolf denied the charge.
Relations between the developer and the environmental group have deteriorated so badly that Senturia recently met with Councilman Marvin Braude to plead his case and apologize for illegally grading the fragile canyon slopes. Braude said he advised the developer to attempt to "get the community involved" and make amends with the Save Las Pulgas Canyon group.
Senturia was scheduled to address the Pacific Palisades Town Council on Thursday night to try to alleviate concern about the development. Sources involved in the fight over the canyon said Senturia is considering building about 40 homes on the site, which borders Sunset Boulevard just north of Temescal Canyon Road and extends to Pacific Coast Highway.
L. Paul Cook, president of C.W. Cook Co., the civil engineering firm that Senturia hired to handle development plans, said an amendment to the permit conditions is being sought because of a decision not to do some of the landscaping work by hand.
"We decided to use a different method of landscaping rather than have workmen planting in some of those landslide areas," Cook said. "After we do some of the remedial work, we can decide what needs to be fixed and what doesn't need to be fixed."
Senturia purchased the canyon site at a fire-sale price of $1.4 million last summer. In previous interviews, he has insisted that he can't divulge any plans about the site because no sound development plans can be drawn until geologic testing has been completed.
However, the secrecy about the property has generated fear about the fate of Las Pulgas Canyon. A major hotel chain reportedly offered Senturia $30 million for the land last year, and a Los Angeles real estate broker who specializes in international properties disclosed that several foreign investors were eyeing the site to build a private estate.
Although the Coastal Commission said it would grant Senturia a permit to continue geologic testing if the restoration work is done, several angry commissioners said such a decision would not preclude a investigation into the grading violation. Peter Douglas, executive director of the commission, said he wants to see the restoration work done as soon as possible to "minimize the damage" done to the canyon.