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Op-Ed: Development game threatens community

September 26, 2012|By Robert Lang

A few weeks back in a guest column, I commented on a local councilman's 2011 statement that at least some La Cañada Flintridge building ordinances are as much guidelines as they are hard-and-fast rules. My point in doing so was not to single out Steve del Guercio for stating the obvious. It was to make the rest of us aware just how quickly what we hold dear can slip through our fingers if we do not pay attention to the slow-drip change that is constantly taking place all around us.

If it works well, democracy is a bottoms-up form of government that balances the common good against individual interests. In the specific hillside ordinance case cited by Del Guercio last December, a very steeply sloped lot was purchased by a private individual, presumably with full knowledge of existing hillside building regulations. Some time thereafter, the property owner requested a building permit for a structure that far exceeded long-standing rules. After considerable discussion and deliberation, a smaller building was approved by the City Council — but one that still substantially exceeded the hillside ordinance for the lot in question.

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“I think it's a guideline, and to say we're only having a strict enforcement would be saying you can't build a house on this lot,” Del Guercio stated in the Dec. 21, 2011 edition of the Valley Sun. “I don't think the city can impose that.”

Why on earth not?

There are parcels all over La Cañada that have been for sale for as long as I can remember. Most of them are in hillside areas where the building codes are intentionally restrictive. The result is a sense of spacious community, a far cry from the mega-mansioned West Los Angeles we fled 20-plus years ago, a densely packed environment open to the highest bidder, a place where every neighbor has a direct view into your living room.

In a nutshell, what happened in the case that triggered Del Guercio's comments has been happening all over La Cañada Flintridge ever since we moved here in 1986. The game is played as follows: Buy a lot, submit a plan that dramatically exceeds city ordinances, hillside or otherwise, then negotiate a compromise. The city gets its fees and the new homeowner gets what he probably wanted in the first place.

It's a win-win, according to our elected leaders, and from the outside looking in, it appears to be inexorable. Most of us simply throw up our hands, convinced that there is nothing we can do about it.

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