UNIVERSAL CITY — Universal Studios, locked in a heated debate with some area residents about its planned expansion, has acquired more than two dozen parcels on streets closest to its property line, according to Universal executives and public records.
Some neighbors complain that the acquisition program is an effort to weed out opponents of the proposed 3.2-million-square-foot expansion.
Since August 1996, Universal has acquired nine homes on or near Blair Drive, a winding road that abuts Universal to the southeast, said Helen McCann, a Universal vice president.
In addition, she said, the studio now owns more than 20 vacant lots along Blair Drive that are adorned with jacaranda trees and other ornamental plants. Discreetly positioned plaques read: "Lot planted and maintained by Universal Studios."
"They have broken up the neighborhood," said Miriam Palacio, a 20-year resident who lives in "a dream home" on Blair Drive that was designed by her brother.
"Once they own all of those houses, they have the clout," she added. "And we lose that many more neighbors to form a force. It's dangerous for us, I'm aware of that."
Universal says the property acquisitions are an example of its commitment to the area and a move that has nothing to do with its Master Plan expansion.
"The really important thing here is, we're investing in the neighborhood," said McCann, who heads the studio's expansion effort. "It's a beautiful place. The quality of life is very high and we want to keep it that way.
"Our efforts support our commitment to the community and have resulted in a more beautiful neighborhood with enhanced property values."
McCann said the homes are being used exclusively for corporate housing and that in no case did Universal initiate contact with the property owner.
Esther Feldman, vice chairman of the county's Regional Planning Commission, said she thought the issues raised by residents would still be taken seriously even with the ownership changes.
"I don't see anything in the last year that gives me any reason to believe that their concerns have been diluted," said Feldman, who has guided the commission discussions on the proposed expansion. "Just because there are two or three fewer people does not make those concerns any less valid."
McCann declined to comment on specific cases or to discuss the relationship between Universal and the firms that have acquired the homes and lots. "It's quite normal in the course of business for subsidiary companies to be established for accounting, taxation or other purposes," she said. ". . . In this case, confidentiality protects families as well as our negotiating ability."
Public records show that the winding road through the Hollywood Hills leads straight to the entertainment giant.
Between November 1993 and September 1998, there were at least 34 transactions involving properties along Blair Drive above Universal, according to property transfer records.
Of those, at least 12, or 35%, involved sales to companies with ties to Universal, according to property transfer records and corporate records from the secretary of state's office. Another sale near Blair Drive also may be traced to a Universal affiliate.
For example, one company, Earth Holdings, lists a mailing address of 100 Universal City Plaza, the official corporate address for Universal. Earth Holdings lists Marc Palotay, Universal vice president and general tax counsel, as its president.
On Feb. 6 of this year, Earth Holdings purchased four lots along Blair, records show.
Two other companies, Griffin Bros. and Hodgson Bros., list their mailing address as 100 Universal City Plaza.
A Universal official said the studio began buying properties in the area long before the expansion plans were announced.
Neighbors conceded that for some property owners looking for a way out of the neighborhood, the Universal deal seemed to be an attractive option.
"Who knows, this could be a workable solution," said Jon Hartmann, who has lived on the hill above Universal since 1953, first in a house on Blair Drive that he rents out, and now in a home nearby.
Hartmann said he has too many emotional ties to the area to leave. But for others, "It's one solution, though it seems underhanded."
Some residents who have invested heavily in their properties said they are reluctant to leave but anxious about what the expansion might bring.
Rick Gombar, another 20-year resident, describes his custom-built property as a "million-dollar home." Were he to sell, he feels it only "reasonable" that he also be compensated for moving expenses and his increased property taxes.
In an Oct. 5, 1998, letter to Frank Meneses of the county's Department of Regional Planning, Gombar accused Universal of purchasing "all of the homes from willing sellers happy to leave their dilapidated houses and . . . ignoring the homeowners who desire equitable compensation for their homes."