ALTADENA — Karen Holgerson, a Pasadena City College instructor, moved to New York Drive eight years ago expecting to enjoy the peace and quiet of a residential neighborhood where single houses sit well back in the middle of large, grassy lots.
Instead, she said, she is kept awake nights by blaring music, crying babies and shouted conversations that drift over her back-yard fence from rental units--three and four per lot--behind her on East Woodbury Road.
"You think, what is this?" Holgerson said. "I didn't notice it when I moved in."
Holgerson maintains that many of the units are illegal: bootleg rentals put up by owners who have ignored county zoning codes that allow one house per 7,500 square feet. Holgerson has complained to the county and is now spearheading an effort to get rid of the multiple units.
But those who live behind Holgerson say she is a pest who refuses to understand that the structures have been there for years--most of them built when zoning was less stringent in unincorporated, county neighborhoods. Woodbury Road is a rental area, residents insist, and has been that way for years.
"We're the bad side of the tracks; she's the beginning of the other side," said resident Margaret Villareal.
The dispute is before the County Regional Planning Commission and centers on Villareal's 700-square-foot house, one of four structures on a 10,200-square-foot lot.
In addition to Villareal's home, the lot contains two front houses and a storage building next to the converted garage, all owned by the Villareals.
Villareal may be required to convert her home back to its original function as a garage and move out with her 4-month-old son, Daniel, and husband, Guillermo.
It's a tough issue that prompted the commission to tour the area Monday before it makes a decision at a Nov. 19 hearing.
It's also an issue that has drawn in other Altadena residents who say bootleg additions are a common practice in this unincorporated community of 43,000.
"It started way back, and no one ever caught up with it," said Cue MacKenzie, an Altadena Town Council member.
"The county has traditionally let it happen unless people complain," said real estate broker Astrid Ellersieck, who has sold homes in Altadena for nearly 20 years. "Single, individual complaints haven't had much success in the past."
But now, with the increasing clout of neighborhood groups, the Altadena Town Council and the preservationist group Altadena Heritage, the county is paying more attention, Ellersieck said.
Holgerson, 42, said the Villareals built a completely new and illegal fourth structure in 1987 that has, at times, housed tenants.
That structure, and the converted garage the Villareals live in, both violate county zoning laws requiring that houses be set back five feet from the side property line and 20 feet from the back property line.
But Villareal, 40, a sixth-grade teacher on maternity leave from the Los Angeles Unified School District, insists that she and her husband have not broken zoning laws.
The couple moved onto their lot in 1985 and all four structures existed, Villareal said. The small house the couple lives in was probably a garage that was later converted to a house, she admitted, but added: "It was done before I was born. It was a house when we bought it."
She said the fourth structure was a small shack she and her husband revamped to use as a storage space, not as housing. The couple is seeking a zoning variance to allow all four structures to remain.
Nick Hasselkus, a county planner who researched the Villareals' case, said that two front houses on the Villareal lot probably were built when the entire county was zoned to permit one house per 5,000-square feet. When zoning laws became more stringent, existing structures were allowed to remain, he said. Thus, his report to the commission recommends that the two front houses stay.
But Hasselkus has also suggested that the commission order the fourth structure torn down and the garage converted back to its original use or made into a "granny flat." If the garage were converted to a granny flat, the Villareals would still have to move out, because county regulations require that at least one resident of such an apartment be 60 or older.
The commission, postponed action at an Oct. 24 hearing after Villareal said that up to 30 other homes in the surrounding six blocks have multiple residences.
Hasselkus said planning staff members may be asked to find out how many of the structures received legal variances and how many are bootleg units before the commission makes its decision.
Real estate broker Ellersieck, who opposes granting the Villareals a variance, said the area has long been known in real estate circles for its nonconforming structures and rentals.
According to the 1980 Census, 75.3% of the housing in Altadena is owner-occupied.