Editorial: Opinions Okay, Intimidation Is Not

If you buy a piece of residential property, should neighbors be able to dictate what you build? Should they be able to tell you to choose between a modern house and Cape Cod? Should they have say over the color? I think most of us would agree that the answer should be no.

What if you buy a piece of property next to a school and want to put in a strip club with neon signs, or you propose to turn your house into a dog rescue for wayward chihuahuas? It’s your property, after all.

Fortunately for those of us living in an urban area (and yes, Pacific Palisades is urban, unlike the vast farmland in Nebraska), cities have stepped in with zoning laws, dictating what is allowable in certain areas of town. They have installed building codes—no skyscrapers along Via de la Paz.

That brings us to the latest land-use battle in our community: the proposed senior assisted-living center in the Highlands.

The initial City Planning hearing regarding the project was held on October 4, and hearing examiner Henry Chou agreed to keep the case open 30 days for additional written comment. This was at the request of Howard Robinson, chairman of the Palisades Community Council’s Land Use Committee, so that his committee and the PPCC could hold public meetings and provide feedback.

Site of proposed development in the Highlands.
Photo: Bart Bartholomew

Last Thursday, both groups held consecutive meetings at the library and spent four hours listening to Highlands residents and the developer and discussing the proposed 82-unit building at the corner of Palisades Drive and Vereda de la Montura.

The facility would be built on a 43,033-sq.-ft. lot that is zoned commercial (located above Casa Nostra restaurant and a small business plaza) and has been vacant since the Highlands was founded in the early 1970s.

Developer Moshe Shram bought the property in December 2013, and his son, Rony, has been in charge of the project. Rony took the project to the Highlands Presidents Council in September, and the majority were supportive, but not all homeowner association presidents were there. (General note: if you can’t attend a meeting, send someone or get the minutes and distribute them to your fellow board members.)

At the Land Use Committee meeting, equal time was given to developer Rony Shram and supporters of the project, as well as residents who oppose it. They call themselves Highlanders United for Good (HUG).

Neighbors argue that the facility is too big; that it is too close to open space and views will be wrecked; that it will increase ambulance and worker traffic; and that noise and lights will spoil the quiet neighborhood. One resident made a derogatory comment about not wanting people in wheelchairs in the neighborhood, and was hushed by the board.

The committee eventually agreed that the proposed use is allowable according to the zoning code. It was pointed out several times by committee members that aside from the Atria assisted-living facility on Sunset, Palisades residents have no place close for aging relatives. One person mentioned she had just placed a relative in Lawndale; a second person said she had found a place in Culver City.

One question often raised in hearings for coastal development permits is if the building is compatible with the neighborhood. Said Robinson, a land-use consultant: “In my experience, compatible is a subjective term and has torn neighborhoods apart. If a developer is following code, then that is tantamount to compatible.” Eventually, the LUC passed a resolution stating: “We recommend to PPCC that the use is appropriate and that there were a number of concerns expressed by the committee: 1.) safety, 2.) access, 3.) noise/disruption, and 4.) overall height of the project.”

Robinson commented afterwards, “We realize it was a mushy result, but it reflects the committee.”

The recommendation than went to the community council, which repeated the LUC hearing.

Height came up again, with the Palisades specific plan’s limit mentioned at 30 feet and that buildings along Sunset can be no higher than 35 feet. Somebody pointed out that the Highlands building, which is 39 feet, and by code could be higher, is not within the Village’s specific plan and is not found along Sunset.

More than one PPCC member told the opponents that if they wanted the lot turned into a park, the neighbors should buy the property from the developer and then develop and maintain a park. A fundraiser campaign to achieve this goal was already under consideration by HUG. At one point the hearing got raucous and Council President Maryam Zar had to interject. “His right to build,” she said.“In favor of your outcry, we’re addressing this issue.”

The PPCC then crafted its own resolution, which reflected the LUC, but added additional concerns such as light pollution and proximity to open space.

Maybe the scariest thing the News heard was that several members of HUG went through the City Planning file and then sent threatening letters to anyone who had supported the project.

The News received part of a letter, which read: “I will share your supporting email with numerous tech industry executives and real estate professionals in the Highlands who have formed well-advised views opposing the project.” The letter then threatened to go to a specific person who might have a career impact on the person supporting the project.

No matter how anyone feels about this project, threats like this are indefensible.

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