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Residents battle proposed Northridge elder-care complex

Zoning changes have put such facilities in neighborhoods, where critics say they don't belong. The Northridge plan's fate is set to be decided this week.

March 18, 2013|By Ann M. Simmons, Los Angeles Times

Northridge homeowners are fighting construction of what they call a "Costco-sized" local elder-care home, the latest in a series of skirmishes since the city changed its rules to allow senior-care residences almost anywhere.

The 83,000-square-foot, three-story elder-care home proposed for Sherwood Forest, in southern Northridge, would sit among single-family homes on large lots flanked by citrus trees.

Residents there are working hard to keep it out. More than 825 of them signed a petition in protest, and scores packed a three-hour zoning hearing to speak against it. When a representative for the developer defended the project, the crowd jeered.

The city passed an ordinance in 2006 allowing elder-care facilities in almost all zones, including areas designated residential-agricultural, provided they comply with certain guidelines. The purpose was to streamline the process for building Alzheimer's- and dementia-care housing, assisted-living homes, senior independent housing and skilled nursing care facilities.

Previously, projects for seniors were subject to more complex regulations, and "developers had challenges getting these types of facilities developed," said Alan Bell, deputy planning director for the city of Los Angeles.

Supporters marshaled statistics on the city's rapidly aging population to make a case that the change was necessary, he said. Within the next two decades L.A. County will gain 867,000 senior citizens 65 and older, according to a recent study by the USC Population Dynamics Research Group.

But since the elder-care ordinance was enacted, plans for senior-care projects in bedroom communities have spawned fierce battles.

Chatsworth residents are fighting a proposal for a 99-bed assisted-living and Alzheimer's facility on 2.4 acres of property zoned for horses on DeSoto Avenue.

Last year, a 156-bed elder-care facility planned for a rustic Tarzana neighborhood was denied on appeal to the local area planning commission. A similar 76-bed institution, which weathered stiff opposition, got permission to go forward in the Walnut Acres section of Woodland Hills after the Los Angeles City Council overturned the local planning commission's rejection of the project.

The clashes have even given rise to a new group called the Community Rights Foundation of Los Angeles. Its aim is "to fight this attack on zoning in Los Angeles," said the group's vice president, Lisa Cerda, who helped champion the defeat of the proposed Tarzana facility.

Officials at the L.A. Department of City Planning said the agency had received applications for 10 elder-care permits since the ordinance passed. Of these, six were approved, one was denied and three are still pending. But the number of developers seeking to build elder-care facilities is probably much higher, since those that meet zoning requirements need only a building permit, said Tom Rothmann, a senior city planner.

Sherwood Forest homeowners are adamant that the162-bed facility proposed for 2.3 acres at Parthenia Street and Shoshone Avenue would be an eyesore and ruin the character of the quiet, semirural neighborhood. They also fear that the structure, which will stand two stories high, with a three-story wing in the central courtyard, would worsen traffic and noise.

And they don't buy the argument that a dearth of homes makes it necessary. Their research found 73 such institutions within five miles of the proposed venture, and in one case there were three facilities within three blocks of each other, they said.

"We're not opposed to it in a business area. We just don't think it should be put in the middle of our community," said Tom Bramson, president of the Sherwood Forest Homeowners Assn.

Irene Boyd said the former farming community's pastoral charm is what attracted her to the area in 1989. Mature pines and eucalyptus trees tower over wide streets, most without sidewalks.

"What's being proposed is undeniably, on its face, incompatible with our community," Boyd said.

The project would be "far too big, overly dense and intense" for the neighborhood, according to a statement from City Councilman Mitch Englander, whose jurisdiction covers Sherwood Forest.

Longtime community resident and attorney Fred Selan, who has a home on the property and is applying for a permit to build the facility, declined to speak to The Times.

In December, Los Angeles attorney Ted Stein invited the board of the homeowners association to tour the site of the proposed elder-care home. He showed board members renderings of the structure and told them that he was the project's developer and Selan's partner, according to Bramson, the group's president, and others who participated in the tour.

Stein, a former airport commission president, also owns property across the street from the proposed facility. He did not return calls for comment.

During the recent zoning hearing, Athena Novak, a community outreach specialist working for Selan, told Associate Zoning Administrator Fernando Tovar that many existing elder-care facilities lacked vacancies.

Another representative for the property owner, Tom Stemnock, president of Planning Associates Inc., dismissed the homeowners' concerns. The home would be open to residents ages 75 years and older, Stemnock said. It would be buffered by a 6- to 8-foot hedge, parking would be ample and deliveries regulated, he said.

Tovar is expected to rule on the issue Wednesday.

Ann.simmons@latimes.com

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