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The Rise of Citizen Activism: Part 2, Bel-Air Residents Fight Back, Form New Bel-Air Association

Posted: Monday, August 28, 2017 – 12:08 PM

By Victoria Talbot

It was mayhem in Bel-Air in the fall of 2014. And it was dangerous. Tractor trailers were careening through the steep winding streets, ignoring stop signs and sideswiping cars. Queues of dump trucks lined the streets, 40-deep on Stone Canyon, blocking residential traffic. Neighbors were going toe-to-toe with developers on their doorsteps, being ignored, insulted and sometimes, threatened. Developers carved up hillsides without regard to the instability in the hillsides, the fragile ecosystems, wildlife corridors, property lines, or the affect their projects had on the immediate neighbors. What is more, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) and the Los Angeles City Planning and Land Use (PLUM) Committee were not listening. Abuses were ignored; apologies were cheaper than permits.

Protests started slowly, one resident at a time, on their own.

First, early in 2014, resident Janice Lazaroff sought help in her fight to prevent Mark and Arman Gabbay from exercising a 50-foot height variance at 360 N. Stone Canyon Rd. Fifth District Councilmember Paul Koretz had granted a variance over the objections of locals, the West Los Angeles Planning Commission and the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations, admitting that he had a relationship with the developers.

The variance galvanized the residents, who saw it as precedent-setting and a threat to the 2011 Hillside Ordinance, which explicitly limited height on residential development.

Tragedy Strikes

Then, in Beverly Hills, LAPD Officer Nicholas Lee was killed March 7, 2014 when his patrol vehicle was struck in the Doheny intersection by a construction vehicle hauling heavy equipment that lost its brakes. Detective Ernest Allen, Sr. was killed May 2, just weeks later, when his private vehicle was struck by a full cement mixer that had lost its brakes and collided with Allen’s small truck before hitting a tree.

These tragic accidents brought hillside development under the microscope, providing tangible evidence of what residents already knew: the construction was endangering their lives.

With the same slender, steep and winding roads in Bel-Air, residents believed that it was a matter of “when,” not “if” the same thing would happen there.

A meeting was arranged between Koretz and his Bel Air constituents, hosted by the now former Bel-Air Association, the area’s homeowners’ association, on April 15, 2014.

The meeting was set to discuss the 50-foot height variance but scores of angry homeowners, seeking accountability and answers, showed up with a litany of construction-related complaints.

They were concerned about overdevelopment, unregulated construction vehicles, clashes with developers and a generally war-like environment that pitted residents against developers.

Finding Allies

Bibi and Joe Horacek were there, and they brought with them documentation of their complaints to LADBS regarding the development at 901 Strada Vecchia, by developer Mohamed Hadid.

“We were fighting alone,” said Bibi. “We didn’t know that other people were going through the same struggles. When they announced the meeting with Koretz at the Bel-Air Association (BAA we showed up and found out we were not alone.”

By that time, they had spent upwards of $100,000 on appeals for permits issued by LADBS, one-fifth of what they have spent to date.

Both Lazaroff and the Horacek’s had been waging lonely battles, surrounded by unknowing residents who were potential allies in their fights.

“I call it the ‘OK Corral’ meeting,” said Bibi, of the Koretz meeting.

Koretz had arrived with a contingent of staff and bodyguards. But there were too many people to fit inside the tiny building, according to fire department rules. The meeting moved outside and the then-BAA board members and executive director shut the doors and windows. The executive director would not leave her office and staged a bodyguard outside her door. Koretz did meet briefly with those outside and then left.

But that is when it became abundantly clear that the Bel-Air Association and its leadership was on the side of the developers, not the residents. It is unclear but residents suspect that the “bodyguards” were hired by the BAA. Then-BAA Executive Director Paulette DuBay said that it was not within their jurisdiction to support residents in their disputes with developers or with Koretz.

“That was when we met Fred Rosen, Marcia Hobbs, and Maureen Levinson,” said Joe.

Problem Projects

Levinson, another neighbor with a really big problem, had photo-documented violations at 944 Airole Way. The developer, Nile Niami, would require approximately 15,000 truck trips for his project, taking an estimated five years to haul. That was further compounded by the number of cement trucks required to shore up the excavations, the construction crew vehicles, other construction vehicles, oversized loads carrying support structures and the lack of civility of the workers. The 85,154-square foot development would require 39,805 cubic yards of exported

Videos show as many as 46 heavy-haul vehicles illegally staged on Stone Canyon Road hours before the legally-allowed 9 a.m. start time for hauling, or on Fridays at 5:30 p.m. when City Hall was closed for business. Neighbors endured non-stop hauling for weeks, with the associated noise and dust, and blocked access to their homes, constant traffic nightmares and unsafe streets.

(The dwelling is currently rumored as being shopped off-market for $500 million, the highest price ever asked for a single-family home, and has since grown to 104,000-square feet. It is slated to have a casino and nightclub, with a VIP lounge, five swimming pools, a cigar room and walls made of jellyfish tanks.)

Called a “single-family-home,” the project was not subject to CEQA reviews, but when completed, it will be more than twice the size of the White House. It is certainly larger than the Hotel Bel-Air. At least 177 permits have been issued for the project from the city of Los Angeles.

Rosen, Hobbs and Levinson began to see a pattern. Airole Way, with 15,000 truck trips, was only one development. Seemingly overnight, scores of giga-mansion projects with thousands of haul trips dotted the region. Bel Air had become a war zone. 

Banding Together

Aware now that their homeowners’ association would not help, the trio reached out to neighbors, including Dan Love and Jamie Meyer.

Levinson expanded her photo-documentation to cover violations all over Bel-Air. Rosen and Hobbs started to make noise, a lot of it, at LA City Hall; with Councilmember Koretz, and LADBS and Planning. Meyer and Love began to organize an association.

The Bel-Air Homeowners’ Alliance (BAHOA) was formed. The original members ponied up $5,000 membership fees to hire legal counsel. “We don’t want to repeat the tragedies of Loma Vista,” said Rosen. “We don’t want them in Bel Air. We will do whatever it takes with our group’s power, with all the city agencies, to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Alliance members began to study the layers of government. The Bel-Air Association had a seat on the Bel-Air Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council, one of dozens of councils that serve as area advisories to the local City Council representative, but the now former board members refused to attend meetings. Levinson and Love ran for seats and, with the power of the Alliance, were voted onto the council, and took land use positions.

Rosen, Love and Hobbs began to chip away at the Bel Air Association, discovering that the BAA collected fees for every haul truck, allegedly to use for filling in potholes. Several high-profile residents shifted their allegiance from BAA to the BAHOA, and soon membership tipped the balance from BAA.

In Beverly Hills, the City Council, BHPD, CHP, City Planning and traffic engineering firm Fehr & Peers were working to form a “Zero Tolerance” plan for safety. The city of L.A., in contrast, lagged in enforcing codes that were already in place.

The first case, 10697 Somma Way, involved the removal of 50,000 cubic yards of soil, including 19,634 cubic yards for the installation of 270 soldier piles. BAHOA members, including wheelchair-bound Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy, testified at the Building & Safety hearing. They lost; but that was just the beginning. The case became the canvass upon which the BAHOA could paint ideas. It was also the first visible result – Koretz had come over to their side.

The 40,000-square foot residence, replacing a 3,799-square foot home, inspired Rosen. “The fiction that these hotel-sized buildings are harmless ‘single-family homes’ will be challenged by the Alliance, before this board, the L.A. City Council, and the courts if necessary, until the City imposes sensible land use controls that reflect some reasonable consideration for the health, safety and welfare of the existing Bel-Air community,” he said.

Bel-Air Brawl

By February, 2015, the “old” BAA and the BAHOA were going up against each other at City Hall.

In a meeting of the Los Angeles City Planning and Land Use Committee (PLUM) to consider an Interim Control Ordinance (ICO) that would limit excavation to 6,000 cubic yards in Bel-Air, the BAA, billing itself as a homeowners’ advocacy group, sent out misleading emails telling residents not to support the measure in opposition to the Alliance.

The ordinance passed, but Bel-Air residents had to act. Projects on Somma Way and Airole Way were moving forward, and others were in the pipeline on Tortuoso Way, St. Cloud, Nimes Place, and Chalon Road.

After several unsuccessful attempts at diplomacy, Rosen, Meyer, Love and Hobbs took action. In March 2016, they held a meeting at the Bel Air Country Club attended by 176 individual members of the Bel Air Association and held an election. Nine new board members were elected, effectively overthrowing the old guard. The new board included Marcia Wilson Hobbs, Jim Hyman, Maureen Levinson, Dan Love, Jamie Meyer, Steven Myers, Tawny Sanders, Gail Sroloff and Nook Suphamongkhon.

Immediately after the meeting, the new board took action by heading to the BAA headquarters., where they found that the office had been wiped clean – all association records had been removed, as well as the BAA’s computers, but the new leadership was able to change the locks on the building.

The organization has now come into its own, creating a new set of by-laws and making the Interim Control Ordinance permanent. Reasonable conditions on construction, haul routes (hauling is now five days a week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. instead of six days a week from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.) and development rules have been implemented. The new “Bel Air Overlay” is now in place – with rules unique to Bel Air –  and the new Bel Air Association advocates specifically for residents.

Next week: Part 3 Sharing and Daring

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