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Taller Bel-Air home opposed; residents say hillside rules being eroded

A band of homeowners associations have lined up in opposition to allowing a Bel-Air home to exceed city height rules, arguing that hillside development restrictions are being eroded by granting exceptions to some landowners.

“Little by little, they are dismantling” the hillside ordinance enacted three years ago, said Marian Dodge, president of the nonprofit Federation of Hillside and Canyon Assns., which includes dozens of local groups.

If this home is allowed to build higher, she argued, “any neighbor can say, ‘Why can’t I?”

The latest debate centers on a new home on Bellagio Road in Bel-Air. Developer M & A Gabaee has sought an exemption from a 36-foot height restriction, asking to build as high as 50 feet.

A zoning official cleared the way for the taller building, but a neighbor appealed the decision to the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission, which denied the request for a taller structure.

Councilman Paul Koretz then stepped in, moving to let the council overrule the decision and allow the Bellagio house to exceed the height limit because of challenges created by its slope and a waterway cutting through the site.

The City Council is slated to vote Wednesday on whether to allow the taller home.

"The bottom line is, it's not an easy property," Koretz said Tuesday. He said that preventing the owner from covering the stream had made it harder, by affecting where the lowest point on the property was.

Koretz added that in such cases, "we don't want to be unreasonable by holding to the exact letter of the requirements -- as opposed to using some common sense."

A council committee focused on planning recommended Tuesday that the taller building be allowed, sending the final decision on to the council. M & E Gabaee project manager Stacey Brenner argued that because the site was situated in a "bowl," nobody would be looking up at the building.

“This is one neighbor who’s gotten two or three friends to rally in support of her,” Brenner said, referring to neighbor Janice Lazarof.

Opponents argued that the case is important far beyond Bel-Air, setting a worrisome precedent citywide.

“If we have a law and these guys are just tossing it aside, what is the point?” asked Patricia Bell Hearst, chair emeritus of the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Assns. “It is totally egregious."

The debate isn’t a first in the area: In another recent case, M & A Gabaee sought to build a taller-than-allowed home on nearby Stone Canyon Road, a plan that was rejected by zoning officials.

The planning commission agreed. But Koretz said the taller building should be allowed because the property had “unique circumstances.” The council voted to allow it.

In December, the same neighbor, Lazarof, went to court over the Stone Canyon building, asking for a temporary restraining order to stop the taller structure from being built. 

The city has already lost another case filed by Donna and Mathis Chazanov, after Koretz moved to override another planning commission rejection and legalize a detached unit near the Mid-Wilshire area.

"It wasn't visible from the street," Koretz said. "Why boot out a tenant and lose a housing unit for no reason?"

But in January,  L.A. County Superior Court Judge Luis A. Lavin ruled that the desire to increase the housing stock "may not be used ... to dismantle the city's zoning scheme in a piecemeal fashion." 

Koretz is not the only council member to use Section 245, which allows the council to veto decisions made by commissions. Other projects have moved forward without objection. Paul Michael Neuman, a spokesman for  Koretz, said an even taller building was recently approved in Bel-Air "without neighborhood complaint."

But the string of recent cases has stirred up concern about rules meant to maintain the beauty of Los Angeles hillsides and raised suspicions about why these buildings are being singled out.

“Overriding this ruling leaves the council open to charges that individual council members are providing special or favored treatment to individual constituents,” wrote Doug Suisman, president of the BOCA Neighborhood Assn. in Pacific Palisades, in an email to the council committee.

One of the M & A Gabaee partners, Arman Gabay, has given campaign donations to City Council President Herb Wesson and councilmen Jose Huizar, Mitch O’Farrell and Mike Bonin, according to city ethics records. His wife, Elenor Beroukhim-Gabay, has also donated to Wesson, Huizar and Bonin, along with Koretz and Councilman Paul Krekorian, campaign records show.

Bel-Air resident Steve Twining argued that council members should return such donations before voting on the issue.

In reaction, Koretz said he knew the property owner well, but pointed out that he had also sought such exemptions for other Angelenos -- "and I couldn't tell you their names."

Brenner of M & A Gabaee said it isn't unusual for property owners in the area to donate to political campaigns and said the move to allow the taller building was based "purely on the facts."

"This project is not a political project," she said, arguing that overriding the commission was "about taking politics out of the process."

Attorney Victor Marmon, who represents Lazarof, said that what the council decides is "a matter of citywide importance."

"If it can happen in Bel-Air," he told the committee Tuesday, "it can happen in anyplace."

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Twitter: @latimesemily

Emily.Alpert@latimes.com

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