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Code War in Bucolic Canyon

Mandeville residents and state officials say the city has failed to enforce erosion, pollution rules on builders of new homes.

January 06, 2006|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

For the doctors, lawyers, artists and filmmakers who flock there, life in Brentwood's Mandeville Canyon involves trade-offs.

In exchange for being close to nature, with its howling coyotes and hooting owls, residents gamely endure an occasional fire, flood or landslide. A massive mudslide in 1969 killed former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's brother Michael and trapped film director Robert Altman and his family.

Now, nearly four decades later, several new luxury homes are going up along the canyon's steep hillsides, prompting fears from some residents -- and even state water officials -- that the work could pose a danger. They contend that the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety is adding to the usual risks by failing to impose adequate erosion and pollution controls on the builders.

Critics say developers, under the eyes of city inspectors, have illegally redirected or filled Mandeville Canyon Creek. Compounding the problem, they say, the city has allowed builders to put seepage pits dangerously close to the channel -- which is given to seasonal flooding that sweeps debris and pollutants directly into Santa Monica Bay. When it rains, critics say, effluent from the new pits could rise above the soil and be carried along with mud and trash.

Residents' complaints have spawned a jurisdictional battle that centers in part over whether Mandeville Canyon Creek constitutes a stream.

State water quality officials have sided with the residents. City officials, however, insist that the permit process was done by the book and that it would be unfair to the developers to hold them to a standard beyond current city laws.

As land grows scarcer in out-of-the-way havens and developers attempt to build on lots that once would have been deemed unsafe, such conflicts are erupting more often.

Residents have also been fighting development that they consider potentially dangerous in the Hollywood Hills and Laurel Canyon, among other areas. Activists say the city must quickly address the issue of protecting fragile streams, hillsides and canyons.

"The codes would protect us, if they were enforced," said Wendy-Sue Rosen, president of the Upper Mandeville Canyon Assn., a homeowners group. The city "rubber-stamps projects without consideration of the unique nature of the canyon and the safety risks. The city has no coordination between departments and no institutional memory of incidents."

Mandeville Canyon, which extends about five miles northward from Sunset Boulevard, historically was part of the Rancho San Vicente y Santa Monica, a Spanish land grant awarded in 1839 to Don Francisco Sepulveda, a retired soldier. According to the Upper Mandeville Canyon Assn., an 1881 map shows the canyon as Casa Viejo Canyon. Running down its middle was Casa Viejo Creek, which, records showed, was fed year-round by springs in the upper canyon.

From Sunset, Mandeville Canyon Road passes first through a gently sloping segment where yards and driveways follow the curves of the road. The road gradually steepens as it winds into the canyon's upper reaches.

Over the years, the canyon has attracted a bevy of artists (Ed Ruscha), film industry people (director David O. Russell, producer Sean Daniel), media moguls (Ken Roberts) and celebrity attorneys (Harland Braun). Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife Maria Shriver also live there.

Like many other canyons in Los Angeles, Mandeville has endured Mother Nature's wrath.

As recounted in the Upper Mandeville Canyon Assn.'s Canyon Echoes newsletter, incidents include a deadly storm in 1969, when rushing waters sheared off Mandeville Canyon Road to the center dividing line near a ranch owned by actor Robert Taylor. A fire in 1978 denuded hillsides and was followed the next year by mudslides. In February 1980, mudslides swamped cars and rose to the eaves of many homes. Debris created a dam behind the deck of one house, sending a river of muddy water coursing into neighboring yards and dwellings.

During last winter's downpours, flooding occurred where drainage systems had become clogged or diverted by residents. Water poured through residences and dumped mud, rocks and branches along Mandeville Canyon Road, the sole route into and out of the canyon. Photos from early 2005 show waterfalls descending the soggy hills to a raging torrent that in the dry seasons is a benign creek bed.

As construction began on the hillside sites, neighbors said they were stunned to see workers storing lumber and other materials in the watercourse, building temporary driveways, erecting retaining walls in the creek banks and leaving cement and other materials in the bed. They sent a letter to the city in March 2004. The practices continued, Rosen said.

A few weeks ago, Rosen sent an e-mail to city officials, attaching photos showing stacks of lumber and piles of gravel stashed directly in the watercourse and evidence that the creek's direction had been altered.

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