PASADENA — For nearly two years, Arnold Williams, a retired chemical company worker who is black, has been trying to build a house in the Linda Vista Annandale area, one of the city's most expensive--and whitest--neighborhoods.
For the same two years, the Linda Vista Annandale Neighborhood Assn. has opposed his plans, most recently using a little-known City Charter section to overturn Board of Zoning Appeals approval. Williams' proposed house does not conform to newly enacted hillside development controls, the neighborhood group says.
Faced with continuing opposition, Williams last month accused the association of racial harassment and enlisted the aid of the local NAACP president.
"I took my time (before speaking out) on the harassment," Williams said. "But, after so much, you finally give up."
Association members deny the accusation. They insist Williams is using the issue of race to pressure city officials into approving his building plans.
"Race was brought up by Mr. Williams, his attorney and the head of the NAACP, who accused everyone against it of being bigots," said association member Cam Currier. "Frankly, I was shocked. I couldn't believe anybody would lower the level of discussion."
The squabble over Williams' house began three years ago when the 15-year Altadena resident bought two steep, hillside lots at 918 and 920 Glen Oaks Blvd., overlooking the Rose Bowl. He built one house at 920, which he plans to sell to finance the construction of a second house proposed for 918, where he will live.
But as Williams tells it, racial trouble surfaced the day he appeared at the construction site. As he swept dirt out of the street where a bulldozer had cut into the hillside lot, a woman came by and told him she was devastated by the hillside destruction.
"I would have paid twice what the owner paid for the lot," Williams said the woman told him. When he replied that the owner might be interested in the offer, the woman retorted, "How would you know? You're just the street sweeper."
Later the same day, Williams said a man drove by and demanded that the bulldozer operator stop work. When Williams told the worker to continue, the man angrily ordered Williams to keep quiet.
During construction, law-enforcement officers visited 16 times, Williams said. Sometimes they came to tell him about dirt in the roadway or illegally parked construction vehicles. But on four occasions, Williams said Pasadena police officers stopped him to ask what he was doing in the neighborhood.
Sheriff's deputies once questioned him after receiving complaints of someone throwing rocks at a deer, he said. City police questioned him about gunshots in the Rose Bowl, a half-mile away. He told of being stopped one day on foot near his house by a police helicopter that roared overhead as two police cars zoomed in from opposite directions. The officers told him they had received a call about a suspicious person in the neighborhood.
Computerized dispatch records kept by the Pasadena Police Department show three police visits to 920 Glen Oaks Blvd. in the past two years, said Police Lt. Greg Henderson. But he added that officers on patrol can stop and question individuals without filing a police report.
After he complained last month, the police scrutiny ended, Williams said. But the association scrutiny has never stopped on his second house, a three-story, 3,400-square-foot home proposed for an undersized, yet legal, 8,170-square-foot lot at 918 Glen Oaks Blvd.
Association members spoke against the proposed house at six public hearings. They attacked the conclusions of city zoning staff members and Williams' engineer and drew up their own architectural data on the house.
Despite a city staff report that concludes that Williams' proposed house meets city building codes, complies with hillside regulations, is below the 35% lot coverage limit and is compatible with other houses proposed in the neighborhood, he still lacks the conditional-use permit required before he can begin building.
"His plans have been flyspecked time and time again," said Peter Wright, a land-use attorney hired by Williams. "Instead of giving him a regular review, they have looked for every single, conceivable (building code) violation."
Williams finally turned to the NAACP after receiving an anonymous letter from a neighbor who attributed Williams' problems to racism. The letter said the association's objections were "disguised as environmental safeguards when, frankly, . . . they are bigoted in their attitudes with racial undercurrents."
John Kennedy, president of the Pasadena chapter of the NAACP, repeated the accusations in an appearance last month before the city's Board of Zoning Appeals. The board voted 2 to 1 to give Williams the necessary permit, but the association kept fighting.
Currier, who hosts a Glendale radio station talk show, brought up the Pasadena incident over the air to spark discussion about how racial accusations can influence city officials.