THE CITY COUNCIL UNANIMOUSLY APPROVED a residential project Wednesday, exposing the city to an environmental lawsuit over a land-use dispute involving a historic house on Mount Washington. The 14-0 vote came in spite of public testimony that the City Attorney’s Office did not thoroughly review the file, a full three months after the city Planning Department staff unilaterally changed conditions set by the East Los Angeles Planning Commission. A group of homeowners and cultural preservationists say city officials violated the city charter by refusing to examine differences between the commission’s oral decision in January and the planning staff’s written decision in April.
The Planning Department’s decision to approve plans for a 4,500-square-foot McMansion next door to the Wolford House was ratified June 13 by the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, headed by councilmen Ed Reyes and Jose Huizar. Opponents appealed the decision to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who owns property blocks away from the historic house, on grounds that the city is ignoring an expert report that triggers an objective study under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). And that the applicant, Nicholas Scoville, gained initial approval for a lot-line adjustment without public notice or CEQA review.
Scoville’s neighbors, the Highland Park Heritage Trust and architect James De Long argue that the planning staff has undermined the authority of appointed commissioners citywide. They say the proposed project would diminish the significance of Wolford House, at 4260 W. Sea View Lane, which was built in the late 1940s and designated as Cultural Monument 614 in 1994. De Long, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Arizona, designed the house and at least six others in the neighborhood, which homeowners contend is eligible for designation as a historic district.
“This case, which has sparked tremendous controversy in statewide historic preservation organizations, appears to have been unusually handled by the department in a way that requires investigation and policy oversight by the mayor and the council,” attorney Daniel Wright, president of the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance and a drafter of the city charter, wrote the mayor and City Council last month.
On Wednesday, Planning Commissioner Sharon Lowe vowed to address issues of staff rewriting conditions approved by her and her colleagues, next week at the East L.A. Planning Commission meeting. “The mayor knows that I am not a rubber stamp.” Lowe said she was frustrated that the lot-line-adjustment issue emerged as a fait accompli, in spite of no CEQA review or public notice, and that other CEQA issues in dispute were not before her commission. “I would hope that any commission, including the Cultural Heritage Commission, acted judiciously, and with the full record before it.”
Scoville’s attorney, Ben Reznik, says the city determined the single-family home is “categorically exempt” from state environmental laws and that CEQA would call for a full environmental review only if the project threatened the historic significance of the Wolford House. “The analysis has been done by the Planning Commission, the Cultural Heritage Commission and the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, all of which have determined there is no adverse impact on Wolford House.”
Though he approved the project in committee, Councilman Reyes said on Monday that he is not satisfied with the story he has heard from planning staff, and that Huizar was the one who pushed for approval. “I’m having a hard time with this. If my colleague wants to take a closer look, I’d support that.” Huizar, who was a beneficiary of a postelection fund-raiser sponsored by Reznik’s firm, Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro, said Monday that he had asked the City Clerk to verify that planning staff had issued an accurate written decision, and was satisfied that they had. He said the lot-line adjustment was not an issue before his committee, but that the project met with appropriate standards, and that the City Attorney’s Office assured him the project complied with city and state law. “I’m supportive of preservation,” he said.
On Wednesday, however, both councilmen accepted city staff’s version of the long-running controversy and agreed to move on. “Perhaps we need to rethink how these cases are presented in the future,” Reyes said.
The controversy dates to 1999, when Scoville and his wife bought the Wolford House and the two lots it sits on from Adel Mabe, who also owns the Birtcher-Share Residence (Monument No. 612) and the Scholfield House (Monument No. 613) on Sea View Lane. Scoville bought an adjacent lot from a woman named Arlene Tabor later that year, just days before Tabor died. In 2000, he obtained a lot-line adjustment that combined three-quarters of one of the Wolford lots with the adjacent lot, allowing him to submit plans for a house that neighbors say would dwarf the 1,100-square-foot Wolford House — and present a façade that would diminish its iconic stature on the narrow street lined with eucalyptus and pine trees.
ON MONDAY, MABE WAS WATERINGshrubs in front of Scholfield House, at 4252 Sea View Lane, next to Wolford House, when visited by the L.A. Weekly. Her 780-square-foot, cantilevered redwood house looks out over Glassell Park, Silver Lake and Hollywood, with downtown L.A. in the distance. Built on the contours of the land, it has the Japanese sensibility of De Long’s and Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, which speaks to a simple California lifestyle, she said. Wolford House sits in repose at an angle just below, with its corner shingles even with the street, a giant stone pine arching over its roof. The dispute, Mabe contends, is about the need to preserve the historic and cultural qualities that make the neighborhood special, and about what she and her fellow appellants say is an egregious lack of due process. “Planning staff has guided this process from the start. They made a mistake in approving it. They’ve never wanted to own up to that. We naively thought reason would prevail.”
According to a June 30 letter to Villaraigosa from Sonoma environmental experts the Brandt-Hawley Law Group, the City Attorney’s Office has ignored expert testimony that requires an initial study of the project proposal under CEQA before going before the Planning and Land Use Management Committee. And that on January 11, the East L.A. Planning Commission imposed conditions now missing from the written decision issued by staff. A review of a tape of the hearing and the decision shows an unexplained deletion and renumbering of several construction-related conditions. “The city is wrong on CEQA,” Susan Brandt-Hawley said on Wednesday. “It’s like Alice in Wonderland down there. It feels good to challenge this sort of decision.”
In his June 5 letter, Wright told Villaraigosa and the council that, “The planning staff has absolutely no discretion to change, rewrite, ignore or modify a decision made by any of the city’s citizen commissions.” Documents filed with the City Council further show that architectural historian Lauren Weiss Bricker, past chair of the California Historical Resources Commission, has opined that Scoville’s proposal will cause “a substantial adverse change to the immediate surroundings of the Wolford Monument, such [that] its historic significance would be materially impaired.” CEQA requires an initial study when dissenting expert opinions exist. However, city staff has disregarded Bricker, who on Wednesday confirmed her opinion that the project would harm the Wolford House.
Though Planning Department staff have asserted that the project is “categorically exempt” from further study, and that there is no environmental impact on the Wolford House, the appellants allege inappropriate conduct between the deputy city attorney handling the matter, the principal city planner and the deputy historic preservation officer, and a lack of due process, including failure to acknowledge “evidence [that] was piling up that [the decision] was erroneous and unlawful.” They claim the cultural heritage commissioners rubber-stamped the proposal at the direction of staff. Appellants also allege the deputy city attorney handling the matter publicly conceded that she lacks CEQA expertise, yet continued to oversee the matter. “I did not like what the deputy city attorney had to say,” Reyes said on Monday, before approving the project on Wednesday.
“This decision, if allowed to stand, sets a terrible precedent,” Mabe said. “Speculators will always be able to look at the Scovilles and say, ‘If they did it, I can do it.’?”