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L.A. at Large

Battle Takes Shape in the Toniest of War Grounds

Bel-Air residents are upset over a new-home proposal, but owners say they just want their dream house.

March 18, 2001|PATTI DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When you think of community activism, with neighbors knocking on doors to get signatures on a petition, banding together for a cause, Bel-Air probably doesn't spring to mind. It's a neighborhood known more for its affluent residents (some with quickly recognizable names: Elizabeth Taylor, Robert and Rosemary Stack), its large, impressive houses behind tall gates, lush foliage and stately trees.

But the elegant tranquillity of the area has been disturbed by a proposed construction project that has galvanized much of the neighborhood, sending some residents to Los Angeles City Council meetings to protest and prompting others to write letters to the Environmental Review Board. They've even formed an organization devoted to the cause, Concerned Residents of Bel Air, holding meetings at one another's homes and exchanging faxes and phone calls.

At the center of the uproar is the house that Elliott and Robin Broidy plan to build on a lot that is 1.75 acres and includes a ravine filled with oak trees. Up until now, two pieces of property shared the ravine, with the property line running down the center. The Broidys bought both properties two years ago, did a lot line adjustment and sold off one of the houses. They now own the ravine, as well as a quaint stone bridge known in the neighborhood as the Nimes Bridge.

While the necessary permits and variances are not yet in place, the plans are for a 56-foot-high house, starting at the bottom of the hill. If their application for a variance is approved, the house will be 20,386 square feet, plus a second structure of 5,676 square feet with subterranean parking for 11 cars. The tennis court will hug the property line of their nearest neighbor, Joanna Carson, ex-wife of Johnny Carson. The project calls for 6,960 cubic yards of dirt to be hauled in to partially fill the ravine. The Broidys, who live in nearby Holmby Hills, plan to remove 35 trees; 12 of them are California oaks that, depending on whom you believe, are either no older than 35 years, or close to 100.

The ravine is the key to the dispute. The neighbors want to keep its serenity and naturalness untouched. The Broidys want to build what they say all of their neighbors already have: their dream house. It's a common dispute that rages in neighborhoods across the nation, but in this community of multimillion-dollar homes, it all plays out on a grander scale.

Each side has retained an attorney. Each side has hired an arborist. And the two sides are definitely not going to be sitting down for tea any time soon.

Gerald Sauer, of Sauer & Wagner, the attorney hired by the Concerned Residents, says that in terms of the lack of sensitivity to the integrity of a neighborhood that "if the Broidys are successful at this, it will open the doors to more development and overbuilding in other neighborhoods."

But Elliott Broidy, who owns the Elliott Broidy Trust investment firm, says the neighbors are being less than genuine in their outrage. "Most of them have a self-interest. If you look at their own history, if you look at their own improvements to land area coverage, you'll see that these people are not conservationists, they are not environmentalists who want to see more trees or more green grass. These are people who have developed their lot more fully than I have."

Their anger, he believes, stems from the already-approved hauling route, which, with more than 6,900 cubic yards of dirt to transport, translates into a 10-wheeler driving a narrow, winding road through the neighborhood every 20 minutes for 30 to 50 days.

The City Council meetings at which the route was discussed were, to say the least, contentious. Councilman Mike Feuer was faced with deciding what the route should be. "I had to consider safety and brevity," he says. "I had no choice about whether they can haul dirt, merely along which route." He also points out that, with all the other issues in his district and his campaign for city attorney, he has spent a great deal of time on this particular conflict.

*

Thirty years ago, Joanna Carson moved into Bel-Air when she and Johnny Carson were newly married. "I used to walk outside and see deer," she says. "I was enchanted with the trees, the wildlife. For many years, I helped care for the trees . . . we hired people to trim the ivy away so they wouldn't be choked. Other than that, we enjoyed our little wild ravine."

Owls are often spotted in the area, as well as squirrels, raccoons and songbirds. It's a narrow slice of wilderness in the midst of urban sprawl. Hadar Plafkin of the Environmental Review Board, which makes recommendations for or against the permits, has received more than 30 letters (including one from this reporter's mother, Nancy Reagan) urging the board to spare the ravine. One letter goes so far as to call the area a garden of Eden.

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