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Zoning Issue Puts L.A. in O.C. Court

A judge orders the city and its building chief to appear at a contempt trial over the approval of a controversial project in Pacific Palisades.

June 13, 2006|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles' top building official has been ordered to appear for a contempt of court trial after a judge found that the city ignored its own zoning rules in approving a controversial home remodel in Pacific Palisades.

The extreme decision caught city leaders off guard and prompted the Building and Safety Department immediately to revoke the permit for the already completed $1-million addition. Officials also ordered that work be halted on a separate project the homeowner is constructing to replace a nearby house that he recently tore down.

Although the case involves a single zoning dispute in the Rustic Canyon area, it is being closely watched by homeowner groups and builders across the city amid growing protests over new development in hillsides and canyons.

In recent years, city building officials have faced a barrage of criticism for approving construction, particularly in sensitive hilly areas, that many residents consider unsafe or untenably large. Last week, Councilman Tom LaBonge proposed stricter rules that would make it more difficult to build in canyon and hillside areas.

Critics say permits are awarded too quickly in many cases, before the possible consequences of the building can be fully understood. They also contend that building officials sometimes ignore code restrictions or take advantage of loopholes, in their zeal to make it easier for developers to get projects through the approval process.

A longtime target of such complaints is Andrew A. Adelman, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety since 1997, who has won praise from many developers, architects and engineers for streamlining the city's permitting process.

Adelman is at the center of the Rustic Canyon issue, and he and the city will have to answer to the charges that they acted in contempt of court for allowing the project.

Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the city attorney's office, said it was "very rare," if not unheard of, for the head of a city department to be called for a contempt trial.

Richard Riordan, who as mayor hired Adelman, rose to his defense.

"Andrew Adelman was a godsend to the economy of Los Angeles," Riordan said. Under Adelman's direction, the Building and Safety Department has drastically chopped the amount of time needed to secure a permit, he said. Many simple permits can now be obtained in an hour. That, in turn, has resulted in a dramatic increase in revenue for the department.

Riordan said he thought it unfair that Adelman should be ordered to trial for contempt.

"If you issue thousands of permits, you're going to make a mistake now and then," Riordan said. "Andrew Adelman shouldn't be held responsible for every one."

The long-running Rustic Canyon dispute, which has pitted neighbor against neighbor in the woodsy enclave, involves Mehr Beglari, a developer who years ago secured city approval to build a massive multistory addition that nearly quadrupled the size of his 2,000-square-foot house at the corner of Greentree and Brooktree roads.

Prominent neighbors, including two judges and an attorney, challenged the project in court in 2002, contending that the addition was 14 feet too close to the street. They said Beglari improperly manipulated a formula for determining frontyard setbacks.

The city's code established requirements for how far back the front of a house must sit from the street. On many streets, however, existing houses have widely differing setbacks because they were built before the requirements took effect. For such streets, the city established a formula that allows a builder to determine an average frontyard depth for a given block.

The plaintiffs prevailed, with Judge David C. Velasquez of the Orange County Superior Court determining that the city improperly applied the formula and should revoke the permit and the certificate of occupancy for the addition. (The case had been transferred to Orange County because two plaintiffs are Los Angeles Superior Court judges.) An appeals court affirmed the ruling.

Six months later, the city notified Beglari that it was revoking the documents. But it did not enforce the action.

Instead, it awarded Beglari a permit to build a canopy in front of the brick chimney of another house he had purchased on Greentree, two doors from his other residence. With the carefully calculated addition of that small structure, opponents said, Beglari reduced the amount of setback required for houses on his block. That, in turn, justified his original addition.

Early this year, building officials reinstated Beglari's permit and certificate of occupancy for the addition.

In May, flabbergasted neighbors watched as Beglari bulldozed not only the canopy that had been erected but also the house to which it was attached. He plans to build a 7,000-square-foot house and three-car garage at the site.

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