Confronted by what is arguably the most controversial decision of the year, the South Pasadena City Council last week unanimously agreed to delay a final decision on the hillside building and tree removal permits needed for the proposed Moffat Street Extension until at least December 16, when the three new members of the City Council elected on Nov. 3 are seated and can consider the legal risks to the city in closed session.
Planning staff had recommended the Council deny Micah Haserjian’s appeal of the city Planning Commission’s approval for a private extension of Moffat Street that would allow access to seven luxury homes Newport Beach-based Planet Home Living wants to build on vacant brush land just over the municipal boundary in the Los Angeles neighborhood of El Sereno.
Haserjian and his wife own a house in South Pasadena that would be disturbed by the road construction and have amassed considerable support from neighbors who raised environmental, procedural and social justice concerns in their opposition to construction of both the private street in South Pasadena and the seven new houses in Los Angeles.
The record-setting 117 recorded comments from people on both sides of the municipal line was so long, the Council elected to listen to only 30 minutes of them. There were also 92 written comments including one show-stopper from LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who urged the city to back off until the Northeast LA Community Plan is completed.
The appeal was continued from an October 21 hearing when the Council directed staff to consider including a provision requiring the developer to secure building permits for the homes from Los Angeles before South Pasadena would approve construction of the street. The Planning Commission had rejected that idea because authorities in LA said the road had to be built before they would issue building permits for the houses.
The complexity of the case was compounded by the fact that South Pasadena had vacated the right-of-way at issue almost 60 years ago but misplaced the documentation.
At the meeting, Planning Manager Kanika Kith reported city staff was able to get a statement from LA fire and engineering officials saying they would issue building permits prior to road construction as long as South Pasadena had approved the road design.
The city of South Pasadena has no jurisdiction over the housing development in Los Angeles, Kanika emphasized. She noted the city could further delay the appeal only if it can make formal findings to justify doing so.
There was also a dispute over whether or when Los Angeles is planning to rezone land in El Sereno that could affect the viability of the housing permits.
“The zoning of lots in El Sereno is set to be re-evaluated later this year,” Solis wrote in her letter to the city. “Residents from the community should have the opportunity to voice their opinions of the proposed luxury development by Planet Home Living before any decisions are made on the construction of the private road.”
But staff submitted email from LA officials stating no zone changes or cases had been filed for the particular lots at issue.
The Council struggled with whether to further delay a decision for two months to sort out the zoning matter but was concerned if doing so would create any legal exposure.
“There are absolutely legal issues here that we shouldn’t discuss in public,” said city attorney Teresa Hightower.
The Mayor asked Planet Home Living attorney Stephen Scheck to weigh in.
“Time is money,” Scheck said. He noted the permit application was filed a year ago and his client had already agreed to a range of conditions, some of which it is “not thrilled with” and believes the city did not have a right to include, but agreed to even though they will add up to another nine months to the project schedule. He noted the applicant had also addressed “to the extent possible” several issues raised by the Council during the first part of the hearing last month. He added the property could at most be subject to a “plan update,” not a rezone.
“Any further delay of this project is having and will continue to have a significant financial impact on my client,” Scheck continued. As to the city’s legal exposure, “When you’re sitting here saying you want to hold off making a decision on this so the City of Los Angeles can rezone my client’s property and reduce the value, I’d say there’s significant exposure there.”
The Council ultimately decided to delay until it can have a closed session with its new members on Dec. 16.
In the meantime Council member Diana Mahmud, after Scheck confirmed the developer had not met with the neighbors during the month since the last hearing, strongly urged the it to meet with the neighbors “to reach a compromise,” possibly by converting one of the seven proposed homes into a pocket park.
The neighbors still bear “considerable ill will toward your proposed project,” she warned. “They are not going to go away.”