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Key Hearing Nears on Bluff Protection Plan : Environment: Panel's approval would send land-use proposal to the council. Activists give it lukewarm support, while some homeowners say it is too restrictive.


For more than seven years, city planners, environmentalists and residents have wrangled over a plan to protect the Westchester-Playa del Rey bluffs, habitat for such sensitive species as the burrowing owl and site of one of the last strips of coastal sage on the Westside.

Now the plan, which is intended to regulate development and land use along the cliffs that act as a buffer between residential areas and the sensitive Ballona Wetlands, faces a key hearing before a City Council subcommittee on Tuesday.

If the subcommittee adopts the plan, which has drawn lukewarm praise from environmentalists and complaints from residents that it is too restrictive, it would go to the City Council--the final step for approval.

The proposal, which will be the subject of a community meeting Monday at 6 p.m. at the Westchester Municipal Building, was drafted in 1988 by the city after residents and city planners became alarmed by the spread of palatial homes atop a three-mile bluff area that runs from Westchester to Playa del Rey.

Critics alleged that some single-family mansions topped 8,000 square feet and sold for at least $1 million, clashing with the smaller residential tracts in the community and posing potential environmental problems for the Ballona Wetlands below because of water runoff.

In response, the Coastal Bluffs Specific Plan was proposed. It was designed to ensure public access to the coast, control bluff erosion, preserve ocean and Los Angeles skyline views and reduce the effects of grading by regulating land use and development in the area.

The 13-page proposal outlines restrictions on residential and commercial construction such as use, height, density, size of front and side yards and drainage to "assure that development is compatible and in character with the existing community." The limitations vary depending on the slope and steepness of the lots.

"Our plan will save the bluff face from undue erosion and protect the wetlands, but will still give homeowners the ability to build large houses or add to the already existing structures," said Nancy Burke, a planning aide in Councilwoman Ruth Galanter's office.

Under the plan, no more than 40% of a lot can be covered by a structure unless a lot is less than 5,000 square feet, in which case 45% can be used.

The limits have angered many homeowners, who have struggled to understand the complex plan's arcane guidelines.

"Playa del Rey has already been built and these restrictions make no sense," said Tom Ennis, a Playa del Rey resident, echoing the concern of many homeowners. "What if you own a home that covers 60% of your lot? Your home will be devalued because you can't do anything with it--you won't be able to remodel."

Not so, Burke said. The plan, she said, has been modified to allow additional construction on existing homes that already cover more than 40% of the lot. Owners may build up to existing height limits and increase square footage, but may not increase the structure's perimeter. In short: build up, not out.

Other residents complain that the building limit too closely approximates the city's hillside ordinance, which was adopted two years ago to stop large hillside homes from overwhelming narrow streets and choking off firetrucks' access to homes. Some believe the wide streets in the Westchester-Playa del Rey bluff area are a mitigating factor that should not warrant such restrictions.

"Forty percent may be fine for a mansion in Bel-Air with a huge lot, but it doesn't help if you have a small house on a tiny lot near the beach in Playa del Rey," said Jim Hinzdel, a Playa del Rey resident. "This ordinance pushes around the value of housing: a few gain, most lose." Burke stood by the limitations.

Another source of irritation has been the plan's exemption of the eastern edge of the bluffs.

In the late 1980s, UCLA was allowed to buy a 57-acre site on the eastern bluffs and it built 86 faculty homes.

Loyola Marymount University is also building an athletic field with underground parking and a business school atop the bluffs. Construction of two dormitories and four apartment buildings for 1,250 students will begin in July, 1995.

"Big institutions such as Loyola and UCLA have been able to do their grading, excavation and elevation work without some of the restrictions that we have," Ennis said. "We have homeowners west of Lincoln (Boulevard) that have restrictions on their property who can't even see the ocean."

The exemption was made because the area was outside the coastal zone needing protection from development as outlined by the Coastal Commission. The universities' buildings complied with city zoning, said Don Taylor, a city planner.

Nevertheless, many environmentalists are heartened that the bluff proposal may finally be coming to fruition.

"The bluffs are a natural corridor for animal movement and hawk flight which can be interrupted by houses on the edge of the bluff," said Howard Towner, a professor of biology at Loyola Marymount University and a board member of Friends of Ballona Wetlands, an environmental group. "The area is also a habitat for sensitive species such as the burrowing owl and has the last strip of coastal sage in the region. I'd like to see an outright prohibition of any development on the bluff face. But this plan is better than nothing."

Others wish action would have been taken earlier.

"It's a shame that Howard Hughes couldn't have donated some of this land to the public. Once it's in private ownership it's very hard to prohibit building," said Danna Cope, a member of the Westchester-Playa del Rey Community Advisory Planning Committee, made up of residents and organized by Galanter. "I realize many people are concerned about the resale value of their homes but there's only one bluff."

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