Hollywoodland resident Bruce Mahler decided to fight the proposed construction of three houses on the steep down-slope behind his house when he realized the development would be virtually inaccessible to emergency equipment if a fire broke out in the tinder-dry Hollywood Hills.
"Hey, fire burns uphill," Mahler said. Turning to the Hollywoodland Homeowners' Assn., Mahler lit a fire of his own.
Rallying around Mahler's spark, the group began to demand answers about what had become of a strict development control plan it had drafted and submitted to the city last year. Spending $10,000 from its own treasury, the group drafted the Hollywoodland Specific Plan aimed at preventing careless development and maintaining the architectural integrity of the European-style architecture of the neighborhood just below the Hollywood sign.
After a year of promises to approve the plan, city planning officials shocked the association in November when they admitted that the plan had not begun to move through the approval process.
"We were convent girls running through the brothel of the bureaucracy," said Bob Crane, a member of the group's board of directors. "I was devasted in November when I found out nothing had been done."
But with Mahler leading the charge, the group held several meetings recently with City Councilman Mike Woo and Planning Director Kenneth Topping.
In the wake of those meetings, Woo said Monday that the group can expect action on the plan by next summer.
The Hollywoodland homeowners' group, one of many wrangling with the city over development, has long felt it has a unique situation, demanding extraordinary action.
In Los Angeles, where high land values have led to a rash of construction in recent years, neighborhood groups have increasingly turned to the city's planning process to protect themselves from the development rush. To protect those areas, the city has enacted dozens of interim control ordinances designed to restrict building for up to a year, or until a permanent specific plan can be put in place.
Interim control ordinances commonly specify such things as building height, setback and roof pitch. In general, specific plans are more stringent than interim-control ordinances.
Many Hollywoodlanders cheered in June, 1988, when the City Council's Planning and Environment Committee approved an association-backed interim-control ordinance that imposed restrictions on such things as height, setback and roof configuration in the area. But homeowners' association members, concerned that the ordinance did not protect the architectural aesthetics of the neighborhood or provide adequate controls on such things as fire equipment access, quickly set their sights on a permanent specific plan.
While most neighborhood groups leave drafting of specific plans to the city Planning Department, the Hollywoodlanders paid consultants to draw up their plan. Under their specific plan, presented to city planners last year, all new construction would have to be "compatible in scale and character" with the neighborhood. In addition, the proposal called for builders to widen streets to assure firefighting access and to keep traffic lanes clear of construction materials.
Woo said the group's dismay over the plan's slow movement is understandable, but he said, "even if a community group pays for its own plan, the city Planning Department still has the responsibility of reviewing it."
The group had hoped a quickly approved permanent plan would prevent construction of contemporary-style homes and many members were unprepared for the rush of construction by builders who were hoping to get in before the strict specific plan was enacted.
"People have been running in here from all over, grabbing up lots and throwing up shoe box-type houses," Mahler said.
As months passed with excuses from city planners, the situation reached a flash point this fall as Mahler and other association members began complaining about abuses of the interim ordinance by builders and the city's lack of enforcement.
Many houses in Hollywoodland are perched on stilts overhanging steep ravines, and much of the new construction has been attempted on seemingly unbuildable lots. Skyrocketing property values in recent years have tempted developers to build on such lots. But many have given up, leaving unsightly scars in the Hollywoodland hillsides.
The roads winding between Moorish mansions and Spanish haciendas are narrow and full of blind corners, and homeowners complain that construction under the interim ordinance has made that situation worse. Roads in the area are often obstructed by lumber, equipment and dirt piles, and have caused nearly impassable single lanes.
Many association members blame their inexperience with the system for the delays, but some have criticized Councilmen Woo and John Ferraro, in whose districts Hollywoodland is located, for not following up on the specific plan.