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Alarcon proposal could benefit new wife

Councilman's bid to reclassify part of a street would mean she could develop her site without giving land to the city.

August 25, 2007|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

Traffic congestion is a sensitive political issue in the San Fernando Valley, especially for residents frustrated by the cars that cut through their neighborhoods.

Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alarcon quietly drafted a measure two months ago to deal with a tiny piece of that traffic, calling on the city bureaucracy to downgrade a street in his district from a busy highway designation to a quiet "collector" street.

The proposal affects just one block of one street in Panorama City. And that block of Wakefield Avenue happens to be the place Alarcon lists as his home -- a 1950 tract house belonging to Flora Montes de Oca, the woman Alarcon plans to marry today.

The councilman's proposal seeks to "preserve the residential character" of Wakefield. But the plan could provide another benefit to Montes de Oca, who plans to tear down her rental house and replace it with as many as nine homes.

Montes de Oca faces the prospect of giving part of her property to the city for a required street widening once she builds. But if Alarcon's request is approved by the council, she would be spared from forfeiting up to 2,850 square feet of her lot at Nordhoff Street and Wakefield.

Nothing legally prohibited Alarcon from writing the council motion; the state's conflict-of-interest law keeps politicians from acting on property owned by spouses -- not girlfriends or fiancees.

Still, the proposal troubled Robert Stern, who heads the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies and wrote the 1974 law.

"Is there no shame?" he asked. "There's nothing illegal. But [this] is doing something that affects him personally."

Alarcon disagreed, saying he won't own the property even after he is married. But he will be required by law to recuse himself from voting on matters directly affecting the property, leaving the decision to his colleagues and the city bureaucracy.

"Obviously, when we get married, I can't be involved," he said.

The house owned by Montes de Oca is one of only two on the east side of Wakefield between Nordhoff and Terra Bella streets -- the 338-foot stretch covered by Alarcon's motion. Just two lots away from Montes de Oca's property, 26 town houses are under construction.

Alarcon said his proposal, drafted in June, would bring a long-awaited traffic fix to Wakefield. Asked why that proposal didn't create the appearance of a conflict of interest, Alarcon replied, "Well, we weren't engaged when I did it. Or at least, when the issue came up."

An hour later, Alarcon's office issued a news release about today's wedding, saying the couple had become engaged in February -- four months before he introduced the motion regarding Wakefield Avenue.

Alarcon first listed the home as his address Nov. 9 -- two days after voters passed Proposition R, the measure that eased term limits and allowed him to seek a third term on the City Council. (Alarcon had just been elected to the Assembly in that same election.)

During the City Council campaign, an image of the house -- one that showed a weed-filled, unwatered frontyard and a mattress on the curb -- was used in a campaign mailer by an opponent who questioned whether Alarcon was living in the home.

Now, Montes de Oca may also have to move into the house, which the councilman described as seriously in need of repair. That's because he has been unsuccessful at convincing his colleagues to redraw the boundaries of his council district so he can move into Montes de Oca's other house in Sun Valley, where she lives.

Alarcon said he had failed to persuade Councilwoman Wendy Greuel to support the change, which would shift at least 200 of her constituents into his district.

Greuel, for her part, said she was not yet convinced that residents just east of the Hansen Dam Golf Course support the change.

Alarcon asked Greuel again as recently as two weeks ago and failed to make progress. And although the councilman has not given up, he said he and Montes de Oca may settle together in the house on Nordhoff Street -- complicating construction plans.

"The site plan she's drawn up actually is individual houses -- separate, detached housing, I should say," he said. "But we've got to live by the law, and she's willing to live there. If that's what the law demands, that's what we're going to do."

Although Wakefield Avenue is 75 feet wide, it would need to be 90 feet under its current designation once any town homes or apartments were built on the block, said Jane Blumenfeld, head of citywide planning for the Planning Department. To accomplish that, any developer would need to contribute part of the lot, Blumenfeld said.

Alarcon said Montes de Oca had no comment, because she shies away from the public eye.

His colleagues -- some of whom plan to attend the wedding at the Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City -- declined to comment when asked if they would support the motion.

But Councilman Dennis Zine said that he sees such street reclassifications as routine and that Montes de Oca's development work would help the economy.

"I don't think there's anything sinister," he said. "They're trying to build homes in a community where people are trying to live comfortably."

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

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