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Neighbors say commission too lenient in approving project

City Council agrees, tells property owner to scale back plans for hillside house.

September 26, 2011|By Daniel Siegal, daniel.siegal@latimes.com

A dispute over a residential project on Robin Hill Road is turning into a showdown over La Cañada Flintridge’s hillside building ordinance.

Carlos Paredes and his family want to build a 2900-square-foot home on a lot with a 60% grade, far exceeding the ordinance’s guideline 1500 square feet for that slope factor. The Planning Commission in August approved the Paredes’ plans; that decision was appealed by neighbors.

At its Sept. 19 meeting the City Council agreed the approved project was too big. Council members voted to direct the Paredes family and their architect work to with City Hall to find a smaller house plan that they could approve.

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A group of concerned neighbors, represented at the meeting by two Hampstead Road property owners, Mel Blaney, who lives adjacent to the Paredes’ lot, and Bill Waller, whose home lies diagonally across from the Paredes’ lot, said that the house that had been approved by the Planning Commission would show flagrant disregard for the intent of the hillside ordinance.

“We are not saying ‘You can’t build a house,’ we’re saying, ‘If you build house in conformance with the hillside ordinance, go for it,’” said Waller. “My concern is not so much on the micro level here, but on a macro level of what’s good for the community.”

Waller said that if the city allowed the Paredes family to build a home that so drastically exceeded the guidelines, it would set a precedent for rampant development.

“[The ordinance] was intended to keep our hillsides from being developed in such a way that we destroyed the beauty of the community,” said Waller. “It’s got to do with views, with the aesthetics for the community, it’s got to do with the privacy of the neighbors, it’s got to do with health and safety issues.”

Robert Stanley, the city’s director of community development, said that the current debate is exactly why the ordinance exists.

“I think the hillside ordinance is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do,” Stanley said. “If neighbors feel that a project…is exceeding the guidelines, they have the opportunity to appeal it, and this discussion is taking place.”

Although the proposed home exceeds the guidelines in the ordinance, the regulations allow for this if certain mitigating findings can be met. A study done by the city staff found several other homes that were approved although they exceeded the slope-factor guidelines by equal amounts.

Stanley said this showed the process was working.

“It doesn’t meant the Planning Commission did anything wrong when they approved the project, because they reviewed it, they felt it did meet the findings,” Stanley said. “Those findings are very subjective.”

Waller, however, said the root problem was an overly permissive Planning Commission.

“Quite honestly, I don’t think they know what’s in the hillside ordinance,” Waller said. “The Planning Commission will approve anything willy-nilly, and it’s up to concerned citizens to get it stopped.”

Planning Commissioner Herand Sarkissian said he thought the proposed house fit into the neighborhood, and that the opposition wasn’t totally altruistic.

“I think a lot of the neighbors are good citizens who get used to the idea that they can protest things and stop things, and this becomes a hobby,” said Sarkissian. “It’s beyond reasonable.”

Sarkissian said that reducing the home’s size from 3000 square feet to the 2000-2200 recommended to the City Council would make little difference in its impact on the hill, and that a guideline-complying 1500-square- foot house wouldn’t be commensurate with La Cañada’s character.

Sarkissian said that these sorts of exceptions are why the Planning Commission exists.

“We went through the reasoning, we went through the findings, and yes, I think it exceeds the hillside limitation with the slope factor, but in all honesty I believe that’s why we’re there as a discretionary board,” said Sarkissian. “I believe that particular multiplier as applied to this instance is not fair.”

Ultimately, Sarkissian said it was unfair to the Paredes family to run their plans through this wringer.

“You might as well say it’s better to tell this man, ‘You cannot build a house’ than to put him through this process,” said Sarkissian.

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