Viewed from the south, the parched slopes of the San Rafael Hills rising above Eagle Rock present an image so stark and unspoiled that it could easily be perceived as the beginning of the wilderness.
Forget for the moment that it is merely a fragile illusion.
That barely hidden on the other side of the crest are the rooftops of houses lining the wooded, winding streets of Glendale's Glenoaks Canyon. Or that deeper still in the canyon is the plateau of Scholl Canyon landfill, unnaturally uplifting each day with trash brought from all over the county.
For a two-mile stretch--most of the way from Glendale to Pasadena--the chaparral stands as open country where hawks and the imagination can soar. It perfectly embraces the small country town feeling that Eagle Rock yearns to maintain. At night, anyone in the valley can look north and see the dark outline of mountains, absent of city light.
Change has touched these hills only rarely. The last important event would have been construction of the Ventura Freeway along the foot of the slopes in the 1970s. But, somehow, the illusion survived. Though the houses of Eagle Rock push right up to the lower edge of the freeway, neither road nor structure penetrated the mountains on the other side.
Then, something sprouted up quite unexpectedly about two weeks ago. Signs of construction appeared in a dip near the west end of the ridge. The framing proceeded quickly. A ground floor sprouted an upstairs. Down it looked over the whole Eagle Rock Valley, like the lord's castle overlooking his manor.
Though only a single house, it totally breaks the illusion. It announces arrogantly that beyond those forbidding hills lies a posh neighborhood of Glendale. And now Glendale has spread over the ridge.
The encroachment, though only visual, was unacceptable to The Eagle Rock Assn., a homeowner group formed three years ago to battle in the complex arena of Los Angeles government any development its members deemed harmful to the country town look. Never in its experience had so shattering a project gotten by its watch so quietly.
Though the issue seemed to have been settled already, by fiat, The Eagle Rock Assn. brought its case to the Glendale City Council on Tuesday.
Taking her turn during the part of the agenda when the public is allowed to speak, Kathleen Aberman, president of The Eagle Rock Assn. adopted an inquisitorial voice.
"I am here to ask you how this was allowed to happen," she said sternly. "Were you in contact with the city of L.A.? Why did not the people of Eagle Rock know this was going to happen?"
A short give-and-take between Mayor Larry Zarian and Planning Director John McKenna produced the news that the owner of the property, Robert Parada, had been granted a variance to build the house.
Although Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre protested, the zoning administrator found that the merits of the case outweighed the protest.
Joe Bridges, the City Council watchdog for the Glenoaks Canyon Homeowners Assn., shed a little more light on the question. He said he had not protested the application vigorously, because of the many conditions applied, but that he now believes the developer has violated many of the conditions.
"They've taken five feet off the ridge separating the two cities," Bridges said. "They have extended the height of the building a full two stories above the ridge that is remaining."
Zarian promised an inquiry. Councilman Carl Raggio added his opinion that, if a violation occurred, the builder should be required to correct it, as an example.
Raggio simply meant that the city enforces its rules. But there is no rule that says one city must respect another's illusions.
It takes a drive up the narrow side streets of Glenoaks Canyon, to see how deeply the new house rising at the end of Valle Vista Drive has brought two communities' values into conflict. Valle Vista climbs steeply up a hill, then abruptly ends in a cusp below the ridgeline with two single-story houses on the lower side of the street.
The new house is on the higher side of the street and larger, but not outlandishly so. It partly cuts into the hillside, nestled into a retaining wall, and partly stands at the very top of the ridge, which appears to have been slightly sheared away.
Dave Weaver, president of the Glenoaks Homeowners Assn., said he noticed with horror several weeks ago that the ridge had been cut away, causing the house to loom over the other side. Weaver said he began preparing a submission asking the city to stop construction.
But it would be highly improbable that any house could be built on the lot without violating the ridge because the house is fixed precisely at the dividing line between two worlds. Looking one way, it is an incremental--and not very noticeable--an addition to a cozy, inward-looking neighborhood. Looking the other, it is the only house in Glenoaks Canyon that has Los Angeles looking up at it.
Imagination might have prevented the shattering of Eagle Rock's grand illusion. Now it will take clever thinking by the Glendale City Council to put it back together, if it wants to.