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Building in Santa Monicas Restricted

County supervisors approve an ordinance making it more difficult to develop ridgelines. Foes say it will hurt many landowners.

October 27, 2004|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors tentatively approved a zoning ordinance Tuesday that would strictly limit development along the scenic ridgelines of the Santa Monica Mountains.

The ordinance would add teeth to the North Area Plan, which established that the 33 square miles of unincorporated land in the range will be managed with resource protection paramount to development.

After a five-hour hearing featuring comments from nearly 100 speakers, supervisors voted 3 to 2 to require a conditional-use permit for property owners who want to grade more than 5,000 cubic yards of land. The current rule allows builders to grade 100,000 cubic yards -- the collective volume of 10,000 dump trucks -- before requiring such a permit.

"That's a lot of grading," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents much of the Santa Monica Mountains and helped craft the new ordinance. "We are in an area that's surrounded by a national park and a state park. There's a huge public investment in this."

Fellow Democrats Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and Gloria Molina joined Yaroslavsky to support the ordinance, which requires final board approval in coming weeks.

Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe, Republicans who voiced concern that the changes would be a hardship for families seeking to build a single-family house or a stable, opposed the ordinance.

County planners estimated that about half the projects proposed in the mountain zone would now require conditional-use permits. They said that many homeowners, such as those planning to add a room, would be unaffected. Grading projects that the county has already approved would still be allowed.

The new guidelines also would forbid building atop scenic ridgelines that wind through 572 parcels, many of them privately owned. Instead of "sawing off a mountain ridge," in Yaroslavsky's words, landowners would have to keep new structures at least 50 vertical feet and 50 horizontal feet away from such ridgelines.

The changes mark a significant course correction in the Santa Monica Mountains, a fragile landscape bracketed by the Pacific Ocean and a swelling metropolis that offers the country's largest urban recreation area.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, county leaders allowed extensive development in the region, often approving subdivisions that were much bigger than planning rules permitted. But they began to shift direction four years ago, with the adoption of the North Area Plan, which reduced the number of new housing units by about a third.

After decades of construction that shaved hillsides and gobbled open space throughout the oak-dappled mountains, many residents and park officials strongly favored the ridgeline ordinance approved Tuesday. Among its supporters were the National Park Service, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the cities of Calabasas and Agoura Hills.

Joseph Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, described a run-in with a landowner north of Malibu Creek State Park who threatened to grade more than a million cubic yards of earth unless the conservancy bought his land.

"That landowner looked me in the eye and said ... 'I can level this area,' " Edmiston said, adding that the conservancy purchased the property to protect it. "That's the kind of degradation to our Santa Monica Mountains that today can happen as a matter of right."

But dozens of property owners, developers, architects, land speculators and horse riders opposed the new rules. Many said that they unfairly abridged the right of landowners to construct homes or horse-keeping facilities on their land.

Allison Von Beltz, a Los Angeles woman who hopes to buy land and build a house in the Santa Monica Mountains, denounced what she called a "land-grabbing ordinance."

"I, like most of the people I've talked to, are sick and tired of more government bureaucracy and further removal of our individual rights," she testified.

Planners hope that the new rules will encourage people to develop flatter swaths of land and build closer to public roads to minimize the grading necessary to construct a long driveway.

But some opponents, such as land speculator Brian Sweeney, said that the requirements were arbitrary and unrealistic. Sweeney made a fortune selling land to conservation groups after threatening to develop open space along the Central California coast and the pristine hillsides above Malibu. "If you have a 40-acre lot, as soon as you enter that parcel the house will have to be there. The land doesn't work that way," Sweeney said. "You need a little wiggle room."

As the hearing wore on long past the lunch hour, some speakers began to complain of hunger. At one point, after a burst of applause echoed through the audience, Supervisor Don Knabe said wearily, "Do you do that to stay awake?"

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