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Home Depot's foes win a round in Sunland; store plans to appeal

City official orders work halted. If his decision is upheld, more rigorous analysis will be needed.

March 10, 2007|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

Sunland preservationists won a key victory Friday in their drive to prevent a Home Depot from moving into their canyon enclave when a city official ordered the company to halt its almost-finished conversion of a former K-Mart store.

The ruling, made as Home Depot was about to install display shelves in anticipation of a May opening, means that if the decision is upheld on appeal, the project would need a more rigorous analysis by the city, complete with an environmental review and public hearings.

Residents of Sunland, a neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles, had appealed a decision in July by the city's Department of Building and Safety to issue a renovation permit to Home Depot that avoided a long review.

Friday's ruling focused on whether the work Home Depot is undertaking is a major construction overhaul, which requires intense scrutiny and public input, or simply a "tenant improvement," which legally can avoid such an examination.

In his 32-page decision, Gary Booher, associate zoning administrator, found that "the renovation is changing virtually everything except the mere facade of the walls that have been propped up to keep from falling."

The ruling gave a shot in the arm to preservationists who have been opposed to the arrival of so-called mansionized homes and other large-scale development that they say would harm a community proud of retaining a rural, small-town feel in the northeast corner of L.A.

"We know the war is not over and we still have a lot ahead of us, but this just validates us," said an ebullient Joe Barrett, chairman of the No Home Depot Campaign. "We hope Home Depot will do the right thing now and let go of the lease and give it to the other general merchandise stores that are interested in coming in."

Councilwoman Wendy Greuel also applauded Friday's ruling, saying: "I'm very pleased that this project will receive the kind of scrutiny it warrants."

Home Depot officials said they intend to file an appeal immediately to the North Valley Area Planning Commission, which would make the final decision.

It could be months before the commission rules, and if it upholds Friday's decision, Home Depot could take the issue to court or opt for the more rigorous review.

"We've ... bent over backward to make sure everything was done per rules and regulations. To have everything pulled back is worse than just being disappointing," said Rick Greene, Home Depot's director of real estate for the Los Angeles area.

"We still believe we are factually accurate in our assertion that the building permit issued to us is valid," Greene said.

Greene said the work was 80% finished and could not say how much money would be lost because of the delay.

Home Depot purchased the lease for the K-Mart property in 2004. Company officials have said their research shows a demand for its services in the Sunland-Tujunga area and that an outlet there would create jobs and additional tax revenue and help boost a sagging commercial district that has not recovered economically since the K-Mart closed.

Residents who organized to oppose the Home Depot said what they need is a general merchandise store, because there is no similar outlet in Sunland-Tujunga.

They also object to a warehouse store that caters to construction trades in their residential neighborhood.

Home Depot, they argued, would bring big trucks, pollution and more traffic to a community with only one main thoroughfare, Foothill Boulevard.

They also said such a large-scale business is too close to an elementary school and is not in keeping with the intent of the area's community plan.

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