It was supposed to be a dream house in the making. Perched on a hill in Calabasas, it would provide ample space and awesome views of mountains, trees, homes and the San Fernando Valley below.
But getting the 23,000-square-foot house built has been more of a struggle than Pamela and Richard Aronoff ever imagined. After they spent $600,000 for the lot and tens of thousands more for soil tests, presentations to homeowner associations and designs by a critically acclaimed architect, the 26-acre lot remains undeveloped.
And the Aronoffs have found themselves in a protracted battle with neighbors who belong to powerful homeowners associations, which have significant influence at Calabasas City Hall because they represent thousands of residents.
When residents saw plans for the large home, composed of three interconnected structures, much of it underground, reaction was mixed. Some said it was innovative; others called it a compound that looked like a radar station.
Some objected to the proposed 18-car garage, suspicious that the Aronoffs, a Tarzana couple who manage and own properties in Warner Center, planned to use the house for commercial purposes. Others opposed building on a ridgeline.
At a June 22 meeting, the city Planning Commission rejected the Aronoffs' bid for a conditional use permit to build the home. The vote was 3 to 2. Commissioners said the site was on a significant ridgeline protected under the city's general plan. The Aronoffs' final chance comes Sept. 20, when the City Council is scheduled to review their appeal.
The process has taken an emotional toll. Richard Aronoff, 52, wakes up in the middle of the night and cannot go back to sleep thinking about the upcoming appeal, said Pamela Aronoff, 43.
Because the lot is on St. Andrews Lane, a gated street just outside the Mulholland Highway Scenic Corridor, the Aronoffs, who purchased the lot two years ago, face strict guidelines. The land had been graded for construction when it was under county jurisdiction.
Although the couple knew Calabasas had strict development standards, Pamela Aronoff said they were surprised by the city's scrutiny of one house.
The proposed house is significantly different from the surrounding Spanish- and Mediterranean-style homes. It would have three elevators and 8,500 square feet of underground garage and storage space. Although other Calabasas homes have more living space, the Aronoffs' house would have the most total square footage, city officials said.
The Aronoffs said they need the extra room for elderly parents, guests and storage. Although they plan to work from home, the house would not be used commercially, Pamela Aronoff said. The design plan also calls for a pool, a tennis court and a horse shelter.
"It's a very careful attempt to break the building into pieces, to present a thoughtful view of what a house should be," said architect Eric Owen Moss of Culver City.
The Aronoffs refused to move the house to a part of the property where it would be less visible and less vulnerable to brush fires, as planning commissioners had suggested, because they said the house was designed for a specific site and plans could not be adjusted.
David M. Brown, vice chairman of the Planning Commission, said he voted against the project because the house would dilute the area's rural character. "Let's be candid: These structures will elicit comments to the effect of, 'What in the blazes is that?' " he said.
Other commissioners said the house constituted multiple dwellings in a single-family residence, which is not permitted. They also were concerned that it would attract curious tourists and architecture students.
Moss, who has designed buildings in Spain, Cuba and Austria, said Calabasas' development guidelines are too tough. "I think it's abusive. The Viennese aren't this insidious or draconian. . . . I find this process impossible. It discourages innovation," he said.
The house's artistic design gave him mixed feelings about rejecting it, Brown said, but the commission had to take neighbors' complaints into consideration.
"People don't always want to see strange, unusual things next to their house," he said.
Robert W. Benson, whose home faces the proposed residence, said construction should not be allowed on what many neighbors believe is a significant ridgeline.
"I think the Aronoffs have no legitimate right to complain," Benson said. "They knew that they were putting their money and egos at risk from the outset. What they forgot about is the process has democratic safeguards."
The Aronoffs met with neighbors--some of them hostile--several times in the spring. They seemingly had all their bases covered. They received a green light from Los Angeles County fire officials, prepared computer-generated photos of the proposed house and hired land use consultant Brad M. Rosenheim to represent them.
But after about a year of working closely with city staff, the Aronoffs found themselves in a Catch-22, Pamela Aronoff said. The couple had prepared detailed work for the Planning Commission, but when commissioners received it, they complained that they were presented with a complex plan virtually set in stone.
The couple acknowledge that they made some mistakes. During a geological exploration, about 40 scrub oaks were removed from the site, violating a city ordinance and angering neighbors. In preparation for the June Planning Commission meeting, the Aronoffs failed to secure written approval from a majority of the three families on St. Andrews, who constitute an official homeowners group.
But Phil Mundy, who lives on St. Andrews, said he would welcome the Aronoffs and their house.
"It's annoying to me you can have so many people upset about a house," Mundy said. "The whole thing has been a very nasty ordeal."