Thursday, April 10, 2008
Court Vacates City Permit for Fence on Hollywoodland Wall
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The City of Los Angeles must review the environmental impact of a wooden fence placed on one of Hollywoodland’s historic granite walls before it can issue a permit allowing it to remain, this district’s Court of Appeal has ruled.
In a decision issued March 12 and ordered published yesterday, Div. Seven reversed the judgment of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Daniel S. Pratt, who has since retired, and held that the city erred when it determined that the fence was exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act and granted the homeowner who erected the fence a permit allowing it to remain because the fence’s attachment to the monument was not a “minor” alteration of a land-use limitation, and presented a strong possibility of adversely impacting the monument.
Hollywoodland is a small residential community in Hollywood located just below the iconic “Hollywood” sign, which originally said “Hollywoodland” and served as a marker over the subdivision. When the housing tract was developed in the early 1920’s, European stonemasons constructed numerous granite support walls abutting the winding, curving streets of the area.
The city designated the walls, along with several staircases in the area, as Historic-Cultural Monument No. 535 in 1991, and the next year adopted the Hollywood Specific Plan in order to protect the unique architectural and historical heritage of the area.
Despite a prohibition in the plan on attaching any structures, “including fences or walls,” Mike and Laura Armstrong—the owners of three contiguous parcels in the development—erected a six-foot high, 165-foot long fence on a curb on top of one of the granite walls along the rear of their property.
After the city cited the Armstrongs in 2003 for violating the plan and ordered the fence’s removal, they applied for an exception to the plan to allow them to replace the unpermitted fence by constructing a new one. Pointing out that their property sits below the grade of the street at a depth ranging from seven to 17 feet, and that no barrier or guardrail existed to prevent vehicles or pedestrians from falling onto their property, they argued that the fence was necessary for safety reasons.
In 2004, Robert J. Cutler purchased the property from the Armstrongs, and the city subsequently approved an exception to the plan allowing him to erect a replacement fence. The city also determined that this action was categorically exempt from the CEQA as a minor alteration of a land use limitation.
Two local organizations, the Committee to Save the Hollywoodland Specific Plan and Hollywood Heritage, filed a petition for a writ of mandate setting aside the city’s approval of the exception to the plan, and ordering the fence removed. They argued that the property was not unique and did not suffer from unnecessary hardships sufficient to justify an exception to the plan, and that the proposed fence was not a “minor” alteration in land use limitations, and thus not exempt from CEQA’s requirements.
However, the trial court concluded that the “practical difficulties of the property in question warrant the exception,” and that the exception was exempt from CEQA because there was no substantial change to historical resources.
On appeal, Justice Laurie D. Zelon wrote to affirm Pratt’s conclusion that the city had complied with its municipal code and provisions of the plan in granting the exception.
But she concluded that the city had erred in determining that the proposed fence would be exempt from CEQA.
Noting that the city had found the fence exempt on the basis that allowing it constituted a minor alteration, Zelon wrote that the city lacked any evidence to support this conclusion and shift the burden to the groups to show that an exception to the exemption—i.e, that it would have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances or might cause a substantial adverse change in the significance of a historic resource—existed.
“[T]he record is unclear whether fence posts will be drilled into the curb or the wall; whether the curb is part of the historic resource; and whether the proposed fence will harm the physical stability of the wall,” she wrote.
Pointing out that the city had failed to consider whether the circumstances of the project differed from the circumstances of other projects generally covered by the exemption or created an environmental risk that was not shared by the same general class, and that building a fence atop the wall would “significantly impact the environment by altering the historic resource, both as to its physical integrity and its aesthetic appeal from the neighboring streets,” Zelon opined that the city had to conduct an initial threshold study under CEQA to see if the proposed fence would have a significant impact upon the environment and directed the trial court to grant the petition.
Presiding Justice Dennis M. Perluss and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John S. Wiley Jr., sitting by assignment, joined Zelon in her opinion.
A spokesperson for the office of City Attorney Rocky J. Delgadillo said the office was still reviewing the opinion and had no further comment.
Attorneys from Santa Monica-based Gilchrist & Rutter, representing Cutler, were not available for comment.
Douglas Carstens of Chatten-Brown & Carstens, also in Santa Monica, represented the groups challenging the fence, and said in a statement that the ruling affirmed the CEQA protections for all designated historic cultural monuments.
“Before allowing a private party to modify a Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument such as the Granite Walls of Hollywoodland, the City must review the impacts of such action,” he said. “This decision stands as a reminder that everyone has an interest in Los Angeles’ treasured Historic Cultural Monuments and those resources must be protected.”
Fran Offenhauser, of Hollywood Heritage, said in the group had pursued the action because of what she characterized as a recent pattern by the city of “serious backsliding when it comes to complying with CEQA and the City’s own historic preservation ordinances.”
“People worked long and hard to get these historic protections, and won’t sit idly by while they lose their hardfought and hardwon protections… A decision like this reminds us that it is worth fighting to protect the heritage of our neighborhoods.”
Crosby Doe, a member of the Committee to Save the Hollywoodland Specific Plan, told the MetNews that he was “very pleased that the court understood the gravity of the situation,” and said that the city should now “think very carefully” about proceeding with a review of the proposed fence’s impact given Zelon’s statement in the opinion that the fence’s impact would be significant.
The case is Committee to Save the Hollywoodland Specific Plan v. City of Los Angeles (Cutler), B197018.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company