VOL.24 NO. 6
March 23 - April 5, 2000

Zoned Out in Topanga:
Part 2

By Michele Johnson

There's a movement afoot. People in the city of Malibu are so concerned about a recent crack-down on zoning infractions there that they have formed Citizens for Fair Zoning and have appealed to the City Council for relief. They are asking the city to consider grandfathering-in structures built prior to cityhood in 1993, and they suggest that Malibu use grandfathered-in rentals to fulfill the city's state mandate for affordable housing. If they win their points, Malibu could provide a model for the County.

City Councilman and former Mayor of Malibu, Walt Keller, insists the zoning flap is basically a non-issue, brought up at election time and supported by his opponent and opponents of two other city council persons up for re-election on April 11. But, election aside, he admitted, "I do believe there are some problems."

The Fair Zoning group claims that the city staff has engaged in selective enforcement against lower income families by citing unpermitted guest houses and other structures, resulting in many evictions. Then there are the ridiculous stories: the city demanding an archaeological dig before someone could build a swimming pool; demanding a permit and geological report for a rose trellis; or asking for a geological report on a 40-year-old home. Ann Hoffman--a broker and lawyer living in Malibu and one of the leaders of the Fair Zoning committee--says there's been "lots of public outcry," and calls it a "hot election issue" for the April 11 vote in Malibu.

The group claims that 20 percent of all residents in Malibu are in violation of some aspect of the zoning code, and have called for massive changes in the code. At a City Council meeting in late January, the Council agreed to schedule a meeting devoted to code enforcement to discuss their concerns. Two hundred people showed up at the February meeting and, according to Hoffman, the city seemed "really surprised at the degree of public frustration," and the fact that the Council "didn't announce a task force and made no dates for meetings." Councilman Keller says a task force was ultimately formed and, as we spoke, was just about to be ratified. The Councilman also noted that the Citizens for Fair Zoning were probably upset because none of their members were named to it. Keller says the task force, made up of "builders, that sort of thing," will look into ways to shortcut the building process, and "ways to get legal without paying a penalty." He said no one will be allowed on the committee who is up for a zoning infraction.

When asked if it's true the city has hired a zoning enforcer who has been pro-actively seeking out zoning infractions, Keller said that was true, and added, "I do suspect she may have been a bit overzealous."

Ann Hoffman claims that the Fair Zoning committee "has the support of 90 percent of residents," and that "extreme zoning" will be an election issue. She mentioned two candidates--Jeff Jennings, an attorney and Ken Kearsley, a former director of the Malibu Planning Commission--as two candidates for the City Council intent on "making the code community friendly." If activism in Malibu brings changes, it could set a precedent for grandfathered-in rental units and new zoning rules that could be considered for Topanga and the County.


One thousand dollars a day--that's the going rate for zoning infractions of any type once they're reported and verified by zoning enforcement. Theoretically you pay until the problem is fixed, though Rudy Lachner of Regional Planning said the County will usually work with you and give you a break, holding back the fine, if you're working to take care of the problem.

Illegal fences are a problem for many, particularly because the existing law seems so ill-suited for Topanga. The County allows fences only three-and-a-half feet high or less to be fronting a road. Lachner says the law was made with city life in mind, to protect kids on tricycles riding down city sidewalks from being hit by cars coming out of driveways. Here of course, we have no sidewalks, and many need higher fences to keep pets in, and noise and coyotes out. If you drive along Topanga Canyon Boulevard or Old Topanga, you'll see many fences taller than the three-and-a-half foot limit. Most have been here for years, and many residents may not even know they're illegal. But someone knew, and reported his neighbor for the infraction. The neighbor who'd been cited was ordered to remove the fence or pay the fine. That neighbor, who wants to remain anonymous, says he went to a meeting at Regional Planning to protest the order, and told them that there "are literally thousands of six-foot fences in Topanga." To prove his point, he said, he brought along a list of violators to his meeting with the County. The County cannot name any of its informants, but does confirm that one man recently turned in 30 people for the same zoning infraction. And, says Lachner, there is a pattern in which cited individuals turn in others. "I suspect that a couple of individuals that have been cited are very angry."


Building and Safety is also not proactive about seeking out violations, but must follow up on any complaints given to them, said Building and Safety's Mark Pestrella. Pestrella has a very benign attitude about enforcement, believing strongly in the Fourth Amendment restrictions against unreasonable searches and seizures: "We don't want to snoop," he says. "We ask, 'do you want to work with us or not?'"

Building and Safety only files a complaint if they can see the violation from the public right-of-way, or if they are invited in. If the resident refuses to let them in, they simply go away.

Unless they have positive evidence that something was added without a permit, they give the resident the benefit of the doubt. "We're being as liberal with it as possible. After all, we want to promote people getting permits."

Ultimately, said Pestrella, "We are public servants. We play that role in different ways." Besides, now, he says, there's almost no need to enforce. The real estate disclosure laws are so strict that buyers know up front what is permitted and what is not, and often insist the permits be gotten before the deal goes through. "If you want to build without permit," Pestrella warns, "eventually it will catch up with you." The hardest cases for Pestrella are those "where we can't permit what they're doing. Those are the tough ones--maybe 5 percent" of the cases.


In Tuna Canyon, at least three members of TUNA (Tuna United Neighborhood Association), which is fighting development in the area, have had the whistle blown on them for a variety of real and imagined infractions. Kay Austen reports that someone with a telephoto lens snapped a picture of a chimney on her house and sent it to Building and Safety, complaining that it represented a fireplace built without permits. A Building and Safety inspector arrived without notice, insisted on gaining entrance, and threatened to put a lien on the house if he wasn't let in, she says. He inspected the fireplace. "He took one look at it and said, 'That's been here forever,'" said Austen. The issue was dropped. Austen later complained to Pestrella. He was "embarrassed and extremely apologetic" that the inspector was so heavy-handed, she said, but he told her that every complaint must be acted on.

Sabine and Malcolm Lesavoy were also reported for two violations to two different agencies. Sabine says they had planted about 40 eucalyptus trees along a private road to finish out a string of existing eucalyptuses. Someone reported them to the Coastal Commission, which ordered them to remove the trees because they were non-natives. Someone also reported them to Regional Planning for having a trailer parked on their property. According to Sabine, they were simply keeping it for a friend, but a representative from zoning enforcement came out to watch the day the trailer was removed. The Lesavoys were also part of the partnership that attempted to set up a Farmer's Market near the RCD trailer across for the Topanga Center, until someone reported to the Health Department that they did not have all their permits.
Says Kay Austen of her troubles, "It's lousy." Sabine agrees. "It's so sick, but I think it's [the] nature [of these things]."


So what should you do if you've been turned in for an alleged zoning infraction? First, if someone has reported you, zoning enforcement must come out and inspect. If you do not have a posted "No Trespassing" sign, they may enter your property and come to the front door. As they pass to the front door, if they see any infractions they can report them. If no one is home, they are supposed to walk away and come again.

One woman reported that a zoning officer came onto her land without permission and peeked into a guest house and found what she believed was an illegal sink, indicating a kitchen. According to Rudy Lachner, that sort of snooping is not allowed. But beware. If Building and Safety, or even the Fire Department comes legally on your land for any reason, they could blow the whistle on any violations they see.

If you want to read up on your potential liability, you can access the County codes at www.ordlink.com/ codes/lacounty. There are lots of rules out there, dealing with everything from home businesses to keeping animals. The best way to save yourself future hassle and heartache is to find out whether you're breaking the law, and fix the problem before you're forced to.

And remember, we do have a Topanga Community Standards District. If enough Topangans believe that specific zoning regulations should be changed, that tool is there to use. It was set up by members of the Town Council in conjunction with the County in the 1980s and, with community support, can suggest changes in the law that can then be voted on by the Board of Supervisors.

Armed with a little knowledge and a lot of tolerance, Topangans can take control of their destiny.


On Election Day, the People Are Heard

By Michele Johnson

My phone rang at 8 o'clock on Super Wednesday morning. "She won!" someone yelled, and I knew "she" was Fran Pavley, who had been an underdog in the race among six candidates for the 41st Assembly seat. But I still had to ask, "Who is this?"

It was Susan Nissman, Zev Yaroslavsky's favorite Topanga deputy. She was spreading the news, having taken Pavley's cause on as her own. She'd peppered Topanga Canyon Boulevard with signs. She was responsible for that huge banner: "Kuehl/Pavley--Vote Tuesday!--put up next to the post office. She was also delighted that Sheila Kuehl had pulled out a strong victory in the California Senate race against worthy opponent Wally Knox who, like Kuehl, was forced out of his assembly seat by term limits.

Why is Nissman such a Kuehl-Pavley fan? Well, as she put it, "Topanga's slate of candidates won."



Many people in Topanga thought that Pavley was the perfect candidate for us--an impeccable environmentalist, a seasoned member of the Coastal Commission and the RCDSMM (Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains) with a Master's degree in Environmental Planning. Her one-two punch issues were the two "E's:" the Environment and, as a long-term teacher herself, Education. Pavley was also the only candidate who has made it her business to get to know Topanga, to campaign here, and to listen to the issues important to the community.

On election day I called Pavley's home/business. She answered the phone, "Hello." I asked, "Is this Fran? I thought you'd be off somewhere campaigning." In her calm way she demurred, saying her only plans included lunch with her husband, and an appearance at her campaign office. She felt she'd done all she could.

That was obviously enough. After her win Pavley could only say, "It's amazing! A big part of my victory has to go to Topanga." The fundraiser held for her at the Mermaid Tavern "paid for one whole mailer," she said. She was "outspent," she said, "but made up for that by a wonderful group of supporters," including locally, Toby Keeler, Nissman, Dorothy Reik and Barbara Allen, among others. Though the 41st District is highly Democratic, Pavley doesn't believe she's a shoo-in for the fall election. Of Jayne Shapiro, her Republican opponent, she says, "I wouldn't underestimate her. She's put $300,000 of her own money into the campaign." Pavley says she'll run on "the exact same message--improving the educational system in California and representing the area on quality of life issues, traffic and open space."

Election night was wild, Pavley said: "It showed me that a real grassroots democratic campaign can work." In the end, she won by 3,000 votes.



When Sheila Kuehl announced her primary win, she stated that she was on her way to becoming the first openly gay member of the California Senate. Kuehl lost her 41st Assembly seat to term limits but, in her years there, she proved to be an intelligent and accessible legislator, responsible for several important bills. Most recently, she has introduced a bill to uphold HMO customers' rights to sue and to outlaw mandatory private arbitration.

Some of us are old enough to remember Sheila Kuehl's arrival on the public scene. In the early '50s, she played TVs Jackie Erwin on "Trouble With Father." And who can forget her brainiac, Zelda Gilroy, on "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" in the '60s? But when network executives discovered she was gay, Kuehl states, "My acting career came to an abrupt end." That end was just the beginning of career choices that took her from Associate Dean of Students at UCLA to a USO tour of Vietnam, which in turn led her to a post-apocalyptic decision to enter Harvard Law School. After passing the bar, Kuehl began work as an advocate against domestic violence and was managing attorney at the California Women's Law Center. In 1994 she was elected to the State Assembly and became California's first woman Speaker Pro-Tem. Kuehl has had more than 50 bills signed into law--preserving the Santa Monica Mountains, enacting an HMO Patient's Bill of Rights, and lots more.

Unlike Pavley, Kuehl's win in the fall election is all but assured: "We don't expect to have any problem," says her campaign manager Emily Gold. But Gold, says Kuehl, will continue to campaign and raise money for other candidates. As for now? "We feel really, really great," said Gold.


Viewridge Bridge Dedication


By Susan Chasen

A dedication for the new Viewridge Trail bridge is set for 11 a.m. Sunday March 26 and will mark the official completion of a remarkable volunteer-led effort to complete this mile-long trail through the lesser known, eastern portion of Summit Valley Ed Edelman Park.

The 60-foot bridge was installed last month and spans a 17-foot-deep ravine that made the trail impassable for equestrians and most hikers.

"People are really taking to it," says Herb Petermann, who was one of the driving forces behind the bridge project. "People are using it quite a bit now. They love it. It's great."

The dedication ceremony will be at the bridge, which is about a half-mile down from the trailhead at the end of Viewridge Road. Parking is available along Viewridge Road.

Thanks to the bridge, the trail now continues on another half-mile to Santa Maria Road. From there, a fire road marked by a Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy sign leads to a little side trail onto a rock outcropping that provides a lovely vista across Santa Maria Creek--a nice site for exploring the rock formations and for picnicking.

Although details for the ceremony haven't been worked out yet, representatives of the many groups who helped get the bridge funded and built are expected to be on hand for the celebration. These include the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council, VOICE of Viewridge, Sierra Club, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MCRA) which owns the park land, and the Los Angeles Conservation Corps.

For everyone involved, this bridge project represents a triumph of volunteer determination. The lead applicant for the $70,000 grant was the non-profit Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council, acting on the vision of several determined individuals who were familiar with the need for the bridge. The Los Angeles County Regional Park and Open Space District awarded the grant.

"I could see it happen again and again," said Paul Edelman, chief of Natural Resources and Planning for the MRCA, the volunteer effort. "They were so motivated. You couldn't stop it. It was a fantastic freight train."

Anyone who needs assistance to reach the bridge dedication may call (310) 589-3200 ext.103.