DEVELOPER DUPLICITY-Opponents of a project to build two 15,000-square-foot mansions on a pristine 13-acre parcel in Sullivan Canyon were informed this week that the developer or its agents improperly cut down at least three protected, native trees on the property, setting the stage for a possible new challenge to the controversial project.
Under a 2006 Los Angeles city ordinance, city officials can freeze development for up to ten years on a property where the owner has illegally removed any of the city’s four protected tree species (California live oaks, sycamores, bay laurels and black walnuts).
“City officials must take this latest evidence of law-breaking seriously,” said former state Senator Tom Hayden, who lives in a modest 1960s tract home overlooking the proposed mega-mansions project. “Irregularities and allegations of law-breaking have surrounded this project from the start. Perhaps this will be the final straw.”
The unauthorized removal of the trees -- two California live oaks and a giant sycamore – was reported this week after city arborists conducted what, in effect, was an audit to determine how faithfully the developer, Sullivan Equity Partners, LLC, had complied with a very detailed tree removal permit issued to the partnership by the city’s Board of Public Works (BPW). Gideon Kracov, the attorney for project opponents, was informed of the findings of the audit, which appeared to be triggered by recent inquiries by CityWatch.
Protected trees may be removed but only if they inhibit development and only if the developer obtains a city removal permit. Such permits normally require developers to plant and nurture two replacement trees of the same species for every tree they destroy.
In a 2006 Los Angeles Times article Eric Garcetti, a city councilman at the time, was quoted as saying the protected tree law was “about ecology. We expect to see more stable hillsides, cleaner air and a generally better quality of life. These trees act as great anchors."
The tree audit was conducted only days after CityWatch obtained a copy of a detailed map that identifies all the protected trees on the property. The map pinpoints which trees were to be removed under the city-issued permit and which were to be saved.
“We want the law fully enforced to send a strong message that the illegal destruction of protected trees – the most precious part of our city’s urban forest – is not okay,” said Hayden’s wife, actress Barbara Williams. Williams is a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to block the Sullivan Equity project.
“This report of violations should immediately go to City Attorney Mike Feuer for his review and to Councilman Mike Bonin,” Hayden added. “Given the developer’s track-record, we’re looking for a lot more than a slap on the developer’s wrist.”
The development of the Sullivan Canyon property has been clouded by controversy for years. The original development team included Ezri Namvar, widely known as the “Bernie Madoff of Beverly Hills.” Namvar is now serving time in federal prison after being convicted of running a Ponzi scheme in which scores of members of LA’s Persian Jewish community were reportedly swindled out of tens of millions of dollars.
After Namvar was prosecuted, his interest in the property was transferred to other members of the Namvar family, notably including Houshang “Sean” Namvar, and to Sullivan Equity.
In an Oct. 20, 2014 memo to her superiors, state Water Quality Control Board geology engineer Valerie Carrillo Zara alleged Sean Namvar and an associate had tried to intimidate and bribe state officials, including herself, as they crafted the terms of a streambed alteration permit the developer needed for its project. These permits are issued by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).
Several local elected officials, including state Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, have urged authorities to investigate Zara’s allegations and called for a new environmental review of the Sullivan Canyon project. Hayden himself has argued that if the allegations of attempted bribery and intimidation were true that should disqualify Sullivan Equity from obtaining the CDFW permit.
In a setback for project opponents, CDFW recently issued the streambed alteration permit without mentioning Zara’s complaint. The permit says the project will have a substantial impact on the environment but required a number of measures to mitigate that impact.
“There has not been a credible investigation of Zara’s allegations,” said Hayden.
Meanwhile, Williams and the Sullivan Canyon Property Owners Assn., led by its president, Patti Choate (photo above), filed a lawsuit earlier this year alleging the city review of the environmental impact of the mega-mansions project was inadequate.
The issue of the native trees on the parcel has been a very contentious part of the lawsuit. The plaintiff-neighbors have claimed the city’s Board of Public Works improperly granted a permit to remove 56 protected native trees on the property despite the recommendation of city planners that less than half that many trees should be removed. The plaintiffs also have claimed the BPW illegally failed to notify adjoining property owners about the public hearing on the developer’s application for the tree removal permit.
Faced with outraged constituents, Brentwood councilman Mike Bonin obtained council approval in May for a motion directing BPW to adopt a new rule requiring the notification of neighbors anytime three or more protected trees were to be removed on a property.
BPW officials later assured Bonin and CityWatch that they had complied with City Council’s wishes. However, CityWatch subsequently learned and reported in November that this reform fell through the bureaucratic cracks and had not been implemented.
On Oct. 13, Bonin – apparently frustrated with dealing with the BPW - introduced a motion directing City Attorney Mike Feuer to draft an ordinance requiring the BPW to provide neighbors with a 30-day advance notice of any plan to remove three or more trees on private property. Now, two months later, that motion is still sitting in the council’s Public Works and Gang Reduction Committee.
At this time it remains unclear what notification rights, if any, the public has in cases where developers seek permits to remove protected trees. “This notification process is key,” said Williams.
“If we had been present at the Board of Public Works hearing, we would have loudly objected to the developer’s request – backed by the Board of Public Works staff – to destroy 56 protected trees,” Williams said.
“The Planning Department’s environmental assessment recommended that only 26 be removed,” Williams added. “I don’t think the board even knew about the environmental assessment. But we did. Unfortunately, we didn’t know about the hearing. Because we were kept in the dark, the board issued a permit that was way too sweeping in its effect on our urban forest. That was wrong. And now we find that the developer apparently violated the permit. It’s a mess, and it’s about time it got fixed, if not at City Hall, then in the courts.”
(John Schwada is a former investigative reporter for Fox 11 in Los Angeles, the LA Times and the late Herald Examiner. He is a contributor to CityWatch. His consulting firm is MediaFix Associates.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
Vol 13 Issue 101
Pub: Dec 15, 2015