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A Neighborly Way to Build a Large House

Community: Getting all the necessary approvals for a new or expanded home can be rough in Palos Verdes Estates.

July 24, 2001|SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One's home may be one's castle, but in Palos Verdes Estates, it's one's neighbors who reign over that castle's size and shape.

This control has been honed over eight decades, since the meticulously planned community emerged on the hillsides of southwestern Los Angeles County.

So entrenched is neighborhood resolve to preserve the country ambience and sweeping vistas that the Palos Verdes Estates Homes Assn. pledges this assurance in writing: "Every man who builds a fine home or building here need not fear that a thoughtless or unsympathetic neighbor will put in a kind of building next to him so unattractive or inappropriate as to be ruinous."

Yet to some of the wealthier homeowners in this increasingly multiethnic city of 13,340, it's throngs of neighbors who appear thoughtless and unsympathetic.

Angry neighbors turn out at Planning Commission and City Council meetings to block homeowners whose projects raise the bar on house size or block cherished views. The applicants are often portrayed as the enemy, out to destroy the character of a city where homes--garages included--average 3,400 square feet.

"If you want a big party house, move to Beverly Hills" is a common refrain.

The neighbors insist it's homeowners seeking to "mansionize" their dwellings, and thereby ruin other people's quality of life, who aren't neighborly.

"We need to be eternally vigilant about the size of the homes being built, particularly in areas where developers want to tear down existing homes and replace them with homes that are much larger than the surrounding neighborhood," wrote resident Richard Lohrer, in a June letter to Palos Verdes Estates Mayor John Flood.

The naysayers have several weapons at their disposal. For one, significant additions to existing homes and all new homes have to be approved by the Planning Commission, meaning that residents can voice their opposition in a public hearing. (Experts say that, unlike Palos Verdes Estates, most California cities don't require applicants to go before planning commissions if their projects meet building and zoning codes.)

An even stronger tool is the Neighborhood Compatibility Ordinance, passed in 1988, that sits in judgment over dwellings in Palos Verdes Estates. While city law allows property owners to build single-family homes as large as 30% of one's lot plus 1,750 square feet, the ordinance contains an exemption: The city can limit projects based upon the average size of other homes in the neighborhood.

Subjective decisions are necessary because only about 100 undeveloped lots remain in Palos Verdes Estates, Flood said.

"Most of new construction is really being done by tearing down houses and building new ones to replace them, so therefore you are building only in the middle of existing neighborhoods," he said, adding that people in those neighborhoods need a voice.

But that voice is causing unequal treatment of property owners who lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in building value if they have vocal neighbors, complained Deepak Chopra, an 18-year resident who opposes the compatibility ordinance.

"The biggest problem is that instead of making it more specific, [the city] made it more arbitrary," said Chopra, a businessman not to be confused with the New Age guru. "They decide and play God on whether you can go to maximum or come up with an arbitrary figure . . . depending on how much resistance you get from your neighbors."

Chopra, who has built three homes in Palos Verdes Estates, offered one example: One applicant may get to build a 5,000-square-foot home, while another living a few blocks away may only get approval for a 3,000-square-foot home, even though both lots are the same size.

Chopra's architect, Tony Ashai, who has worked on dozens of Palos Verdes Estates homes and has lived there for three years, agreed. There are also advantages, he said.

"It does keep a lot of developers out," Ashai said. "It keeps the [city's] charm. The problem is Palos Verdes Estates also remains undervalued. If my house was in Malibu, it would be worth $3 million. In Palos Verdes Estates, I'd maybe get $800,000."

City leaders have tried to ease tensions by issuing six pages of guidelines to clarify the ordinance and coax neighbors and applicants to meet on their own time and come up with satisafctory plans.

It seems to be working, at least some of the time. First-time approvals by the Planning Commission range from 83% to 91% since the guidelines were published in September, City Manager Jim Hendrickson said. The approval rating in the previous six months ranged from 71% to 82%, he said.

The guidelines are being revisited every six to eight months.

In addition, the City Council today will introduce a proposed ordinance that would prevent neighbors from appealing projects unless they can demonstrate that they've tried to work with the applicants, said Allan Rigg, planning director for the city.

Nonetheless, neighborhood warfare is far from over, as a recent Planning Commission hearing demonstrated.

A few of one Via Navajo couple's neighbors sat in a packed City Hall meeting room. One by one, they walked to the lectern, ripping into the latest plan the couple's architect sought to have approved.

That the plans were revised to accommodate the neighbors did not appear to make a difference:

"It's too large for what exists in the neighborhood right now."

"It gives all of us a feeling of overcrowdedness and massiveness in size."

They've "planted the slowest-growing shrubs. . . . We suggest mature box trees."

Within a half hour, the proposal for the two-story home of 3,515 square feet, was voted down, 4-2.

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