Los Angeles County’s Ridgeline Plan Has Some Property Owners Crying Betrayal

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The proposal seeks to require costly permits for grading land and restrict development to preserve the Santa Monica Mountains.

Source of this article – Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2004.

By SUE FOX, Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County’s latest plan to limit development and preserve scenic ridgelines in the Santa Monica Mountains has kicked up opposition from some property owners living on the rugged slopes.

In slick mailers sent to thousands of mountain residents, they warn that the proposed ordinance, now under consideration by the county’s Regional Planning Commission, could devalue land and force homeowners to pay more than $40,000 for permits to add bedrooms, stables, pools or tennis courts. Today, the commission will take more testimony and possibly hold a vote.

“We all worked for years with the county to prevent subdivisions,” said Anne Hoffman, a Malibu property owner who lives in a ranch house on 10 acres. “Now they’re turning on us and making the homeowner the enemy. We all feel incredibly betrayed.”

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who helped planners draft the ordinance, bristles at such accusations. He said that developers, real estate brokers and land speculators lurk behind the opposition, employing a campaign of misinformation to “alarm some good people.”

“I have no sympathy for the defilement of the Santa Monica Mountains,” he said. “We do not believe that any development is a good one. We do not have an obligation to increase people’s wealth.”

The  proposed ordinance would establish guidelines for grading land and ridgelines under the North Area Plan, approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2000.

The land-use plan, which covers 33 square miles in the unincorporated Santa Monica Mountains, prizes resource protection over development with the goal of preserving “the area’s scenic beauty, including specific natural features and broad vistas.”

The ordinance would require property owners who want to remove more than 5,000 cubic yards or grade more than 15,000 square feet of land to first obtain a conditional-use permit. It also would protect “significant ridgelines” that meander through 572 parcels, many of them privately owned, by keeping structures at least 50 vertical’feet and 50 horizontal feet from the ridgelines.

If approved, the rules would be considerably tighter than those now governing the mountains. The county currently allows builders to grade 100,000 cubic yards — the equivalent of 10,000 dump trucks worth of dirt — before requiring a conditional-use permit. No countywide standards specifically govern ridgeline development, according to a staff report by county planners.

Existing homes and other structures would be exempt, so that the new rules would apply only to future development, said Ron Hofiman, a county planning administrator. The department has received more than 300 comments on the proposed ordinance, with the majority opposing it, he said.

If approved by the Planning Commission, which has held two crowded hearings on the matter, the proposal would go to the Board of Supervisors.

Some mountain dwellers view the plan as a case of good intentions gone awry. Alain Semet, who lives in a three-bedroom house atop a Topanga ridge, said that forcing people to build downslope could increase environmental damage.

“You could end up with a whole hillside that’s going to be bare, with a house that doesn’t look like it belongs there in the first place, just to avoid building on the ridge,” Semet said.

Others contend it will unfairly limit single-family homeowners who wish to build additions or equestrian facilities.

“It is the death knell for most new equestrian and recreational facilities in the Santa Monica Mountains,” said Don Schmitz, a private-sector land-use planner and development consultant. “They’ve gone way past what other jurisdictions require.”

But some homeowners support the proposed ordinance and applaud the county’s newfound commitment to preservation. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, county planners were disparaged as villainous bureau, crats who allowed rapacious developers to lop otfmountaintops and shave hillsides. Communities, such as Calabasas and Agoura Hills, incorporated irt an effort to gain more control over land-use planning.

Many local groups have endorsed the plan, according to Yaroslavsky’s staff. Among them are the Malibu Canyon Community Assn., the Old Topanga Homeowners Assn,, the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation and the Monte Nido Valley Community Assn.

“It absolutely is not ordinary homeowners” who oppose it, said Dave Brown, a Calabasas planning commissioner.

“The average guy isn’t going to be affected by this at all,” he said.

“But the real estate market is red-hot right now, and there are hundreds and hundreds of lots in the Santa Monica Mountains owned by people who expect to sell them at a profit. They’re trying to stir people up.”