Councilman Michael Woo has come under sharp attack by some Hollywood Hills homeowners for his efforts to help a corporate campaign contributor obtain special exemptions it is seeking to build $192 million worth of mansions overlooking Hollywood Reservoir.
The opposition to Woo and the project appears to be increasing, according to several factions of area homeowners. They say that so far, they have collected signatures from more than 1,300 residents and visitors to the reservoir area who oppose Woo's actions on behalf of the Jefferson Development Corp.
The opponents' objections are many. They say the massive development project will bring traffic and pollution to the wealthy neighborhood, and that it will encroach on wildlife habitat and mar the scenic views.
Most of all, they object to the developer's plan to flatten a portion of a ridge, reducing its elevation by 80 feet to create home sites.
Such a ridge cut would be in direct violation of a sweeping environmental ordinance, the Mulholland Scenic Parkway Specific Plan, which after 17 years of preparation is expected to come before the City Council for a vote within weeks. In anticipation of this, Woo introduced an amendment to the Mulholland plan early this year that would exempt Jefferson.
Jefferson executives say it would be feasible to build the subdivision without the exemption, but that building it on a flattened ridge would make it more attractive and, in many respects, environmentally more sound. They also say that they have taken pains to seek out the opinions of nearby homeowners and address their concerns, and that the project as a result is extraordinary in its environmental sensitivity.
Indeed, some area homeowners have rushed to the defense of Woo and Jefferson. They say a few disgruntled homeowners with hidden agendas and a well-organized propaganda machine are attacking the councilman and the developer.
One of Woo's colleagues on the City Council, Zev Yaroslavsky, has gotten involved, accusing Woo of "stooping to the very gutter of politics" because one of his aides solicited and accepted a campaign contribution from Jefferson. Seeking contributions from developers who have major projects pending is not illegal, but Yaroslavsky has said he is one of several council members who take pains to avoid such a relationship with developers when the project is in their own district.
What is so sharply dividing the affluent neighborhoods high in the Hollywood Hills is a project being touted by Jefferson and its Japanese backers as "Bel-Air East."
In all, Jefferson wants to build 64 estate-sized homes, to be priced as high as $3 million each, on a 172-acre parcel. The site, on the north side of the reservoir and not far from Universal City, is the largest and last remaining open canyon in the hills surrounding the reservoir, which also is known as Lake Hollywood.
Arguments over the project's effects on traffic, pollution, wildlife and scenic views, as well as issues of governmental process, have incited various homeowner factions in recent weeks into something verging on war.
Heated disputes have erupted at meetings. Neighborhood organizations have been snooping on each other, trying to determine who is allying themselves with whom. Flyers from anonymous people and mysterious groups are being slipped under doors and windshield wipers. Groups are accusing each other of circulating misleading propaganda and unfairly worded surveys and of engaging in smear tactics.
But neighborhood activist Victoria Cubeiro says the opposition can be boiled down to one simple complaint: "The bastards are trying to cut our ridges," she said of the developer. "And what we're shaking our heads at is, why is (Woo) sticking his neck out so far to help them do it?"
Woo's intervention on Jefferson's behalf occurred March 27, as the council's Planning and Land Use Committee was wrapping up discussions on the Mulholland ordinance before passing it on to the council. Woo successfully inserted an amendment to exempt Jefferson from the plan.
Jefferson's original development proposal called for knocking more than 100 feet off the ridge. After negotiations with Woo and local homeowners, it scaled back its plans to a cut of 80 feet. Jefferson officials contend that in their efforts to respond to the concerns of area homeowners, they have redrawn their plans for the project more than a dozen times.
"It would be folly for us to despoil the ridge," Jefferson said in a letter to area residents. "Who, then, would want to purchase our homes, or yours?"
If the ridge cut is not permitted, Jefferson executives argue, the homes would be built on the steep hillside. This would cause the homes to be built closer together and would substantially reduce the overall aesthetic appeal of the development, they contend, not just for the new buyers but for other area homeowners who will have to look at the homes.