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Family, Neighbors at Odds Over Sale of Land

Some Woodland Hills residents want to stop a condo project on the ranch property. But the 92-year-old owner needs the money, her son says.

June 27, 2006|Ashley Surdin | Times Staff Writer

For years, residents along this small stretch of Mulholland Drive in Woodland Hills enjoyed their neighbor's roaming sheep. Peacocks roosted on their rooftops, and chicks ambled into their yards.

The farm animals are gone now. But residents still savor the sun-splashed hillside, dotted with wildflowers and old oaks.

"We live in the city," said Dave Breliant, "but it's like being in the country."

Neighbors then learned that, after more than 50 years, heirs of the late Homer Nicholson are selling the six-acre ranch property that abuts their yards.

They always anticipated development but never expected that the land would be transformed into "three-story boxes," Breliant said. Developer DS Ventures proposes building 37 detached condominiums on the site. Fearing the project would disrupt the neighborhood's rural character, Breliant and his neighbors raised tens of thousands of dollars to mount a legal and political campaign against the project under the auspices of Save Oak Savanna, a nonprofit group that claims 600 members.

The group's strategy includes lobbying the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to sell unused portions of the Girard Reservoir, adjacent to the Nicholson parcel, to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy as parkland.

Activists hope this could lead to development restrictions placed on the Nicholson property, including the creation of buffer zones for trees and wildlife corridors.

But the Nicholson family said that project opponents have carried their campaign too far.

The family has good reason to sell the land, which includes a 1940s ranch house and stables, said Michael Nicholson, son of the late owner. The property is prone to trespassing and vandalism, and brush clearance costs $10,000 a year, he said. Most important, Nicholson said, his mother, Mildred, 92, needs the money to live on.

Neighbors who claim to love the land have not respected the family's property, Nicholson said. They have dumped trash and concrete and drained swimming pool water on it, killing an oak tree. They also have driven golf balls through it. The family's beloved sheep were killed by neighborhood dogs, Nicholson said.

"What totally amazes me is that we're the villains," said Nicholson, adding that it was his mother's idea to sell the land. "Basically, they want me to sell my mother's inheritance for less than they would sell their property."

After considering several bids, including one for $1 million from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the family selected the current developer. Though DS Ventures didn't offer the most money, its proposal seemed the most sensitive to the land, Nicholson said.

More than 90% of the oak trees will be preserved, said Lisa Gritzner, spokeswoman for the developer.

Indeed, the Nicholson family appears to have the upper hand in the property dispute since the DWP is in no hurry to sell its land.

Last summer, low water pressure left dozens of Woodland Hills residents without service, and the DWP scheduled several improvements, one of which included replacing the Girard Reservoir water station.

Until those are completed, it is unlikely the utility would part with its land, said James Yannotta, DWP assistant director of water quality.

"We won't need the entire property, but I know we're going to have to rebuild the pump station and we're going to need room for that," Yannotta said. "We need to do the improvements first, and then we can see what we can declare as excess....

"We're not going to be comfortable enough until the summer of 2008."

Breliant bristled at the time frame: "He's just taking the easy way out and saying, 'Let's wait.' Well, we're saying we don't want to wait, so let's look at the options."

Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine, who supports turning the DWP property into parkland, also believes the process can move faster.

Last month, Zine asked the council to urge the DWP to begin negotiations with two park agencies, including the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, to explore leasing or selling its property.

"We're basically pushing" the DWP to do something, Zine said. "It's yet to be determined, but at least we're making progress."

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