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Home Depot for Sunland gets OK

Planners agree to allow the hardware giant to build, despite heated opposition. But a councilwoman vows to challenge the decision.

July 21, 2007|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

Home Depot won a round Thursday night in its battle to expand deeper into the San Fernando Valley, securing permission to open in Sunland after a meeting that featured angry exchanges about race, immigration and jobs.

At a raucous seven-hour hearing attended by more than 600 people, the North Valley Area Planning Commission voted 3 to 2, shortly after 11 p.m., to declare Home Depot's building permits valid.

Within hours, however, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel said she would ask the council to reconsider the decision of the commission, whose members are appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

"We believe that Home Depot did not follow the rules by not looking at environmental issues, parking, traffic and operational hours -- all the things that are critical for a neighborhood to control their quality of life," said Greuel, whose district includes Sunland-Tujunga.

If Greuel prevails, Home Depot will need to conduct an extensive review before opening its 93,000-square-foot store on Foothill Boulevard in a former K-Mart.

Home Depot real estate manager Richard Greene voiced disappointment with Greuel's announcement, saying his company has spent $2 million trying to navigate the city's review process.

That struggle is setting a dangerous precedent and could harm the local business climate, he said.

"Businesses will be less likely to invest in Los Angeles if the building and permitting process is politicized," he said.

Big box and other large retail stores have been stirring up passions across L.A.'s neighborhoods, whose residents say they don't want the traffic and noise that accompany such high-volume businesses.

Neighborhood leaders in Hollywood are still seething over the congestion that followed the opening of a Target on La Brea Avenue in 2004. Homeowners in Sherman Oaks went to court last year over a planned Best Buy on Van Nuys Boulevard, saying the city was ignoring the effect on traffic. And Councilman Eric Garcetti has pushed measures to keep Home Depot from opening a traditional store -- with its huge parking lot -- in Glassell Park.

But planners and politicians say few land-use fights have gotten as ugly as the one in the northeast San Fernando Valley between community activists and backers of Home Depot.

At Thursday's marathon meeting, an overflow crowd at Mt. Gleason Middle School spilled into the school's courtyard cafeteria. Home Depot foes booed speakers, while backers of the hardware giant repeatedly questioned whether racial bias was driving the opposition.

The session quickly turned incendiary after South Pasadena resident Dianna Perez, a supporter of the hardware mega-store, told the audience that the region had a history of racist acts, including cross burnings by the Ku Klux Klan.

Perez accused one audience member of making comments about the immigration status of the largely Latino crowd who filed in wearing orange Home Depot T-shirts.

"The man next to me said, 'I should have brought my INS badge,' " Perez said.

The crowd erupted in fury over the Klan reference, with commission President Victor Sampson struggling to keep order. Minutes later, a Home Depot opponent angrily demanded that race be excluded from the debate.

"This isn't about race. It has nothing to do with that," said Robert Kuehn, who described himself as Mexican American and added that his neighbors in Sunland had warmly welcomed him.

Hundreds in the audience sported white T-shirts reading "No on Home Depot in Sunland-Tujunga." Hundreds of others wore orange T-shirts with words praising Home Depot for providing decent jobs and health benefits.

Organizers paid by Home Depot said they brought one busload of supporters from nearby Pacoima.

Home Depot has spent 2 1/2 years trying to win city approval for its project.

Although the company initially received a building permit last year, foes filed an appeal, arguing that the interior renovations are so extensive that they require a more thorough review.

Representatives of Home Depot argued that such a review would take two more years. But a city zoning administrator sided with Home Depot's critics, as did Greuel.

The campaign has been furious on both sides. Home Depot has two lobbying firms -- Latham & Watkins and Dakota Communications -- working on behalf of the project.

Dakota received nearly $260,000 from Home Depot during the first three months of 2007, according to reports filed with the Ethics Commission. Latham, a prominent law firm, received $75,000 during the same period.

Sunland-Tujunga residents recruited their own experts and launched an elaborate website devoted to torpedoing the project.

"We're pretty devastated, but we're not done," said Joe Barrett, a leading opponent of the Home Depot, hours after the vote. "We don't think it's over."

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

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