A developer's long-besieged plan to build luxury houses in Studio City's Fryman Canyon may face yet another obstacle if the Los Angeles City Council takes the rare step today of designating half the undeveloped canyon a cultural-historic monument.
Interest among environmentalists in declaring part of Fryman Canyon a monument was revived recently with the discovery that developer Fred Sahadi's plans envision a temporary "haul road" across this rugged acreage, which could be blocked by the monument declaration.
Those opposed to the development initially dismissed the city Cultural Heritage Commission's 4-1 vote on May 16 to bestow monument status on 31 acres of the site. They said that Sahadi himself had said such a designation would not interfere with his plans to build 26 estate-sized houses on his remaining 32 acres of the canyon.
But if monument status blocks construction of the proposed haul road, it could make building on the site more difficult or expensive, or force Sahadi to accept a lower price in negotiations with state officials interested in buying all his Fryman Canyon property for parkland.
Two other developments also cloud Sahadi's project.
A powerful homeowner group--the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Assns.--has called for an investigation by the city. The federation wants to determine how the developer managed to avoid a city-mandated provision that he deed a portion of Fryman Canyon to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state parks group.
And the state Department of Fish and Game has demanded that Sahadi produce a plan for protecting wildlife in the canyon from the effects of his project.
"Mr. Sahadi is in a pickle," said Barbara Fine, a vice president of the hillside federation.
But Benjamin M. Reznik, Sahadi's attorney, said the issue before the council today should be clear. It would be an unprecedented abuse of the city's cultural heritage law to declare the 31-acre parcel of Fryman Canyon a monument, Reznik said.
Reznik also refused to discuss his client's continuing talks with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy about selling the house-site portion of his property to the conservancy. The conservancy once appraised the property at less than $10 million while Sahadi has said its value is closer to $14 million.
Ultimately, the value of the property depends on what Sahadi can do with it. If he has all the needed permits to build luxury houses on the site, it is worth more than if the permits are uncertain, Mayor Tom Bradley's planning deputy, Jane Blumenfeld, and other city officials agreed.
And that's where monument status would come in.
The recent discovery of the so-called "haul road issue" "has given a whole new meaning" to securing landmark designation for the property, Blumenfeld said Tuesday.
Bradley has supported the monument designation for several weeks. Just this week, Councilman Michael Woo, who represents the Studio City area, joined Bradley, said Eric Roth, a Woo deputy.
The developer's plans call for the temporary road to be used to transport dirt from the east end of Sahadi's tract to its other portions. The dirt is needed to construct the pads on which the million-dollar houses would be built, city officials say.
The developer's dilemma is that the contemplated haul road crosses the area proposed for monument status.
If the 31 acres are designated a monument, the developer would need Cultural Heritage Commission approval to build the road, said Tim Taylor, assistant head of the city's Department of Building and Safety.
The commission presumably would want to protect a monument from being altered by a road, Blumenfeld said. "I don't think having a 17-foot-wide road running through this property is what the commission was thinking about when it designated it as a monument because of its pristine environment," she said.
The commission might be able to withhold approval of the road for up to one year. If the developer sought to alter the haul route or move the dirt over city streets he would need additional city approvals, Taylor said.
Sahadi has said the Fryman Canyon property costs him $40,000 a month in carrying costs.
Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy officials did not return several phone calls asking about their negotiations with Sahadi.
Monument status, however, might not represent the only way preservationists can gain control over the 31 acres.
Last week, the conservancy's deputy director said the state agency was considering the possibility of suing Sahadi to gain title to the land. Due to an apparent mix-up, Sahadi did not deed the 31 acres to the conservancy--as some environmentalists and city officials say he was required to do as a condition of getting city approval in 1986 of the tract map for his project.
If the conservancy does not use every effort to gain title to this land, the agency would have a lot of explaining to do to its homeowner allies, said Fine, vice president of the hillside federation.
Fine also said she will urge the city today to conduct an investigation of how Sahadi kept title to the 31 acres despite the tract map condition.
Finally, a state Department of Fish and Game official said Tuesday that his agency has determined Sahadi's project would "substantially and adversely impact fish and wildlife resources" along the canyon's stream bed.
As a result, they said in a June 13 letter to Sahadi, the developer is required to conduct a wildlife inventory of the area, including plants and animals, identify how these wildlife resources would be affected by his project, and file this information with the Department of Fish and Game.
The department has 30 days from the filing in which to negotiate an agreement with Sahadi on ways to minimize the impact of his project on such resources, said Rolf Mall, deputy regional manager for the state agency. If the department and the developer could not reach agreement, the dispute would be sent to an arbitration board.