Zoned Out in Topanga:
Whistle Blowers, The Law and Ways to Take Control
Part Two in the series, Working It Out
By Michele Johnson
In upscale Henry Ridge, the neighborhood is in turmoil because someone has been on the phone, turning in neighbors for zoning infractions. In another part of the Canyon, a homeowner, upset about being turned into the County, snitches on 30 other neighbors in retaliation. In Tuna Canyon, a battle rages over whether or not new homes should be built in an environmentally sensitive area. Part of the fallout: members of TUNA (Tuna United Neighborhood Association) are turned in by persons unknown for everything from planting illegal eucalyptuses to having too many chimneys.
Over the course of the last month
or so, people have approached the Messenger with these and other alarming
stories all on the same theme. Each had been turned in by somebody to Los Angeles
County Regional Planning, Building and Safety, the California Coastal Commission
or the County Health Department for a variety of alleged violations. Are tattletales
taking over Topanga? Well, not exactly.
The individual cases are alarming, but the general statistics are not as worrisome. Also, the attitudes toward enforcement by both Regional Planning, and Building and Safety, are pretty reassuring. Los Angeles County Regional Planning, which oversees zoning enforcement, has 78 open cases currently in the Topanga area out of approximately 4,500 families. Rudy Lachner, the Administrator of Land Use Regulation for Regional Planning, insists that its zoning enforcement unit only acts on complaints, and does not seek out zoning infractions. "In Topanga, our enforcement is reactive, not proactive." They act on complaints from private citizens who are allowed to remain anonymous by law, and other public agencies. And in fact, there were only 41 cases opened in 1998, and 53 cases opened in 1999. "We're not a threat to the community. If we wanted to, we could go out to the community in one afternoon and open more cases than that."
Mark Pestrella of County Building and Safety, who enforces building code violations, estimates that an average of three complaints a week come in concerning Topanga properties, which would work out to about 156 a year. Of those, only about 10 are open at any one time.
HOW ABOUT HOUSING?
But, for the people affected, the problem is very real. Up on Henry Ridge--an area off Entrado served by a private road--the situation has gotten particularly ugly. Someone up there has turned in at least four homeowners, two for illegal rentals. In one case, a young couple bought a 20-acre holding on Henry Ridge. The house was "run down with rats and vermin, and a wall had fallen down," said the man who bought it, who has asked to remain anonymous. He said when they bought it, the property was advertised as "rental income property" and has three addresses--three mailboxes and three trailers that had all been rented out. "It's been like that for 20 years," he said. But only a month after they moved into their new home, someone reported them to Regional Planing. They were forced to shut down their rentals immediately, and could face further action.
Now the couple is trying to obtain
legal permits for the trailers. In order to apply for new permits, said the
husband, they must submit a $6,300 application fee that can not be refunded.
"There's two or three different permits that would do the job," he
said. He could apply for a caretaker's mobile home. In fact, they had been planning
to trade rent with a couple in one of the trailers in exchange for carpentry,
electrical work and carpet cleaning while they remodeled their home.
They could also apply for a senior citizen residence (commonly called a "granny unit") that could be legally rented out to up to two people if one of them is over 62 years old. Or, because they have sufficient acreage, they could look into creating a guest ranch on their property.
The man is philosophical. "I'm not blaming the neighbor (who turned him in). It's my own fault for not knowing It will elevate my position to have my property legal." But, he laments, "You want to have your home be your place of refuge. This neighborhood is not a place of refuge."
Rentals are a particularly knotty problem in Topanga. It's an open secret that many people--including quite a few senior citizens--rely on rentals to help pay their mortgage and keep them from selling their homes. In the same way, those in Topanga's shrinking middle class renting the polyglot of guest houses, reconverted garages and trailers, could not live here at all if these kinds of affordable units weren't available. Finally, some generous Topangans have opened their doors to "creekers" and others living on the edge and let them live in trailers on their property for little or no rent. Where would these people go if their rentals disappeared tomorrow?
How many illegal units are there? Nobody knows for sure. According to the last census, 11% of Topangans rent, though it's impossible to know how many of these were living in legally-rented houses, and how many in illegal rentals.
Legal rentals are becoming a scarce commodity in Topanga. Some leading citizens have already been forced out, as the houses they legally rented were sold in the booming market and the new owners took possession. Jan Mitchell, clay teacher to Topanga for many years, was one who lost her home last year and couldn't find an affordable replacement. Robin Maxwell, a best-selling historical novelist and Tuna Canyon activist, was also forced to move when her rental was sold.
Lachner confirms that throughout most of Topanga, where it is zoned for single-family residences, second units are illegal. The only exceptions are permitted caretaker units and granny units. Why is renting so restricted? Lachner says some of the units rented out were not originally built with building permits and could be inherently unsafe. In general, he insists, trailers are the most dangerous. And no legally-built guest house can have any kind of kitchen, he adds, but many "have bootlegged kitchens. Gas lines, etc., may not have been approved. You may have a fire hazard there." Why no kitchens? "If it has a kitchen, by definition, it becomes another single-family residence."
Then, he adds, an area is zoned for single-family residences to protect a neighborhood from undue traffic and noise.
STATE MANDATES AFFORDABLE HOUSING
Should second units ever be allowed
in areas zoned for single-family residences? Could any of these now illegal
rentals be "grandfathered" in? Well, the State of California seems
to think so. California Government Code (Statute 65852.150) reads this way:
"The Legislature finds that second units are a valuable form of housing
in California. Second units provide housing for family members, students, the
elderly, in-home health care providers, the disabled and others, at below-market
prices within existing neighborhoods. Homeowners who have second units benefit
from added income and increased sense of security. It is the intent of the Legislature
that any second-unit ordinances adopted by local agencies have the effect of
providing for the creation of second units, and that provisions in these ordinances
are not so arbitrary, excessive or burdensome so as to unreasonably restrict
the ability of homeowners to create second units in zones in which they are
authorized by local ordinance."
In addition, the state has mandated that local agencies "have a responsibility to use the powers vested in them to facilitate the improvement and development of housing needs of all economic segments of the community." To fulfill this obligation, the County must find ways to help supply a certain number of affordable units.
George Malone is the regional planner overseeing the general update of the County Plan, which is going on right now. The existing housing element is being updated for the first time since 1989. Part of that update must focus on affordable housing. When asked what the County is currently doing to solve the affordable housing crisis, both Lachner and Malone came up with only two examples, both already specifically mandated by the state. One is the density bonus, which encourages the construction of new affordable housing. That has little to do with Topanga, where no new developments are planned, and probably none would be allowed. The only other concession to affordable housing is the granny unit.
When asked if any existing second units could or should be legalized to provide affordable housing, Malone responded, "I don't think anyone with the Planning Department will sanction that." The question seems to be, Is their a middle ground here, room for compromise?
Anyone who would like to know more can attend a public hearing on the revised housing element of the County Plan at the Regional Planning offices downtown at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, April 26.
Community members have another tool available to them if they want to tackle the rental issue or any other zoning matter. If community members believe County zoning law need to be changed in their area, they can band together and form their own Community Standards District, which can, under a strict process that includes public hearings, propose new zoning standards that would apply just to their district. Any changes agreed on must still be taken to the County Board of Supervisors for a vote.
In the 1980s, a group of Topangans, under the auspices of the Town Council, moved to set up a Topanga Community Standards District. Their immediate goal was to fight what they saw as inconsistent application of confusing zoning regulations that allowed overbuilding on small parcels. Says Marty Brastow, one of the organizers, "It was something we worked out in cooperation with the county." The Community Standards District remains in place, one of about a dozen in all of Los Angeles County. So if Topangans want change that applies only to Topanga, they have the method to move for it.
More to come. "Zoned Out" continues in the next issue of the Messenger.
Hancock Trial Delayed
By Susan Chasen
James W. Hancock's
attorney has requested additional time to locate a material witness for his
case and to consider settlement options before going to trial.
Attorney Richard Hertzog made the request on February 24 in Malibu Superior Court before Judge James Albracht.
Hertzog also explained that, after living in one place for nearly 20 years and having no relatives who can take him in, Hancock, 65, is having difficulty finding a new place to live.
Judge Albracht agreed to put off Hancock's trial to March 16 or within 10 days thereafter.
Hancock, who was arrested during a raid on his cabin residence at 252 Old Topanga Canyon Road in September, has pleaded not guilty to charges of possession of methamphetamine for sale and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
A previous enhancement to the charge for allegedly dealing drugs within 1,000 feet of a schoolyard was dropped. That charge would have carried the longest potential sentence of those facing Hancock, according to Narcotics Detective Tui Wright with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Lost Hills station.
Since his arrest, Hancock has become the center of a simmering local controversy. On the one hand, Hancock, the gray-bearded woodcutter, has become a symbol of Topanga's perhaps fading free-spirit identity.
His arrest, and the subsequent press reports, have generated sympathy from those who are afraid that Topanga is losing its "live and let live" tolerance which once might have extended to the occasional drug dealer.
On the other hand, the closeness of Hancock's home to Topanga Elementary School--as the crow flies, or according to many, by way of a useable trail linking the two properties--and his alleged drug sales, have prompted genuine concern among parents in the community. These allegations, if true, suggest that users of methamphetamine--or "speed"--are coming and going from the area, and that there is a potential for violence that could put children at risk.
But underlying the current controversy is the pre-existing dispute between Hancock and Robert Harris, the owner of the property Hancock had been living on.
According to court documents, in August 1999, just over a month before Hancock's arrest, Hancock filed a lawsuit against Harris seeking damages for emotional distress, malicious prosecution and abuse of process arising from a previous attempt by Harris to evict Hancock by what he contends were fraudulent means.
Then in December, Harris filed a cross complaint citing Hancock's alleged illegal drug sales as well as alleged citizen complaints and violations of building codes and zoning laws as a breach of a 1997 court stipulation that defined terms under which Hancock would be allowed to remain on Harris's property.
Harris's complaint also contends that Harris entered into the stipulation agreement on false pretenses, because it was not disclosed to him at the time that Hancock had been convicted in 1995 on felony charges of possessing methamphetamine for sale.
Judge Patricia Collins, on February 14, denied Hancock's demurrer--commonly referred to as a legal "so what"--and ruled that he will have to answer Harris's cross complaint within 40 days.
According to Hancock's complaint, he has suffered humiliation, mental anguish and emotional distress as a result of Harris's conspiring to create a false offer to sell the property for $150,000 as a subterfuge to evict Hancock. According to the stipulation agreement, Harris is to notify Hancock of any offer to buy the property, and to allow him 15 days to match the other party's offer. If he is unable to, Hancock would then have 60 days to vacate the property.
However, when Harris notified Hancock of such an offer in October 1998 and eventually sought to evict Hancock, a judge agreed with Hancock that the offer was not legitimate, and he denied Harris's right to require Hancock to vacate the property.
Harris, however, maintains in his current cross-complaint that it was a legitimate offer.
Harris' attorney writes that Hancock's complaint is "inane" and part of a twisted tale in which Hancock, "not content to live rent-free for 20 years," has interfered with the sale of the property and is now suing Harris.
For Hancock, however, his care for the property and improvements--the cabin and storage area, the terracing, the retaining walls, the brick driveway and planted flowers--amount to a real investment in the property--seven days a week of his life--since moving there in 1979 or 1980. His work has made the property usable, according to the complaint.
According to court documents, Hancock moved to the site in 1979 or early 1980 at the invitation of an elderly woman named Teddy who had a phone answering business. She reportedly told Hancock that she knew Harris and that it would be all right. Later, Hancock says, he met Harris and was told he could stay if he kept the property clean and cleared the brush.
Charged With Meth Sales
By Susan Chasen
A former Topanga
resident was arrested driving into the Canyon on Thursday, February 10,
for allegedly transporting and possessing methamphetamine for sale, police
Steven Phillip Sparks, 51, was stopped for traffic violations at the corner of Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Entrado at 2:45 p.m. and was subsequently arrested, after approximately two grams of methamphetamine were found in the car, according to Narcotics Detective Tui Wright with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
"We suspect him of being involved in making drug deliveries in Topanga and drug sales in Topanga," Wright said.
According to Wright, Sheriff's deputies found drugs packaged for sale, baggies, and a scale, inside the 1970 gold Chevrolet pickup Sparks was driving.
Wright said Sparks was pulled over for an improperly functioning taillight and for speeding in the rain. However, according to Wright, he has also been under investigation for possible drug dealing.
After Sparks was pulled over, Wright said, Sheriff's deputies observed drug paraphernalia in the car.
According to Wright, Sparks has lived in Topanga over the years. Sparks reportedly identified his current residence as West Hills, but Wright said Sheriff's investigators believe he had been staying in hotels in Woodland Hills before the arrest.
After subsequent investigation, approximately $10,000 was seized from Sparks' bank account on suspicion that the money is proceeds from drug sales. Wright said, "He had financial documents that showed a possible link between his narcotics dealing and cash that was in a bank account."
Under current assets forfeiture law, if the money is to be returned Sparks will have to prove, at a forfeiture hearing, that it did not come from drug dealing.
According to Wright, Sparks told police he was unemployed at the time of his arrest.
Sparks, who has plead not guilty, has been released on his own recognizance pending a felony arraignment on March 9 before Judge James Albracht in Malibu Superior Court.
On February 28, Judge Lawrence Mira ruled that Sparks should be held to answer on the two felony charges of possession of a controlled substance for sale and sale or transfer of a controlled substance.
Asked if recent drug arrests in Topanga indicate a significant drug trafficking problem, Wright said no, but he added that activities here have been increasing. In a small community like Topanga, he stated, a little police intervention can go a long way to discourage drug dealers: "It really can make an impact. It all starts with people in the community complaining to us."
Wright also said that finding relatively small quantities of drugs is typical: "It is common for drug dealers to deliver small amounts," he said. Smaller amounts are easier to hide and carry lighter sentences if they are found, he added.
According to Wright, the two grams of rock and powder methamphetamine found when Sparks was pulled over amount to between 40 and 100 doses.
Wright said there was no known connection between Sparks and James W. Hancock, whose arrest in September has created some controversy in Topanga. Wright did say, however, that often when one dealer is arrested another may move in to supply local addicts.
An assault with a deadly weapon occurred at 1704 North Topanga Canyon Boulevard, where a 40-year-old Topanga resident was beaten by two unknown suspects after the victim left a bar. The victim, who was extremely intoxicated, provided deputies with several leads, which detectives are investigating.