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'Tara' plan loses a round in court

Justices back foes of bid to build housing around the estate. The plan is roiling council races.

March 04, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

To paraphrase Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind": Frankly, my dear, they didn't give a damn.

That's the view of the state Court of Appeal on how West Hollywood officials acted when residents tried to protest a plan to turn a residential landmark nicknamed "Tara" into a 35-unit senior housing complex.

Justices ruled Feb. 21 that city officials brushed aside locals' objections to the redevelopment project by obtaining federal funding for it before required public hearings were held.

Opponents say the ruling could force the city to forfeit its $4.2-million Housing and Urban Development grant and start the application process from scratch. In the meantime, the decision has quickly become an issue in Tuesday's City Council election, in which the mayor and two other council members are seeking reelection.

Anger over the city's plan for Tara led to the creation of two opposition groups: Save Tara, which filed the lawsuit, and the West Hollywood Neighborhood Alliance. The alliance assembled its own slate of three candidates in hopes of unseating the incumbents Tuesday.

Campaign rhetoric has turned harsh as election day nears. Candidates have accused each other of breaking campaign contribution laws and of being in the pockets of developers or other special interests. One has described a rival as "Nixon in a dress." Another has been characterized as someone who attacked "a former girlfriend and her cat."

The noisy electioneering belies the lush, tranquil Laurel Avenue setting that for nearly 92 years has been Tara's backdrop. The estate's sprawling, two-story main house on about two-thirds of an acre bears a resemblance to the mansion in "Gone With the Wind." That was the favorite movie of the estate's former owner, Elsie Weisman, who is said to have been watching it in 2000 when she died at Tara at age 101.

In her memoir, "A Journal of Remembered Years," Weisman told of coming from Chicago with her family and moving into the house in 1924. Her father, amusement arcade operator Adolph Linick, purchased the house for $35,000. She wrote of falling in love with what became a forest of 44 tropical shrubs and 66 trees, including deodar cedars, eucalyptus, Lombardy poplars and fruit and pepper trees.

A few years before her death, Weisman contemplated selling the property for multifamily housing. West Hollywood responded by declaring it a municipal historic landmark. That prompted her to bequeath the property to the city.

City leaders, needing more affordable housing for senior citizens, were quick to recognize Tara's potential. They drew up plans to refurbish the main house and build more dwelling units partially around it. A 700-page HUD grant application was filed in 2003, and relocation plans for four long-term tenants living at Tara were prepared.

Those who had hoped Tara would be preserved as a combination community center and pocket park were outraged.

But when they complained that the city was moving ahead without public hearings required by state law, West Hollywood officials insisted that their Tara plan was not a project "but rather a concept." Officials pledged that citizens' viewpoints would be considered when an environmental impact report was prepared later in the process.

In its 2-1 ruling, the Court of Appeal sided with opponents of the city's plan.

"The fact of the matter is that the public was denied the right to participate in the decision-making process until all the operative decisions had, in fact, been made," the court said.

West Hollywood officials disagree. They say that they acted properly and that the redevelopment plan is legal.

City Atty. Michael Jenkins said officials might seek a state Supreme Court review of the judgment. As for now, "I haven't heard we've lost the HUD grant. That grant remains valid," he said.

Mayor John Heilman, who has served on the City Council since West Hollywood's founding in 1984, denied that the ruling would affect his reelection campaign or those of colleagues Abbe Land and Sal Guarriello.

"It's a technical ruling that says we should have had an EIR before entering an agreement with HUD," he said. "I don't think we'll lose the HUD funding. HUD has worked closely with us," Heilman said.

He said senior citizen housing is desperately needed in West Hollywood.

"We have over a thousand on various waiting lists -- many waiting seven, eight, nine years," he said. "There's a tremendous need. All you need to do is walk through the city and see seniors living literally hand to mouth."

The incumbents are being opposed by the neighborhood alliance's slate of Ed Buck, former Councilman Steve Martin and Heavenly Wilson.

The city is at a crossroads, Martin said. "We're at a point where we can either retain the unique urban village that people identify as West Hollywood or we can simply become an indistinguishable, overdeveloped part of Los Angeles," he said.

Other hopefuls are Patricia Nell Warren, Jim Sorkin, Steven Koller and Shawn Hoffman.

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