NEIGHBORHOOD NIGHTMARE THAT WON’T GO AWAY--While hiking a dusty trail through Sullivan Canyon, actress Barbara Williams pointed out to a visitor dozens of felled trees that once shaded the canyon slopes. These were the first victims of a 12.5-acre development project slated to level hills and destroy a local ecosystem in bucolic Sullivan Canyon.
Williams, wife of activist and former state senator Tom Hayden, explained that “what’s happened here is an example of how the system fails.”
Williams and other Brentwood residents were outraged by the city’s failure to notify them last year of the impending development project and planned destruction of dozens of Coast live oaks and walnut trees. By city ordinance, these “protected tree” species can only be removed by a property-owner after obtaining a permit issued by the mayor’s appointees on the Board of Public Works (BPW).
City Councilman Mike Bonin heard his Sullivan Canyon constituents’ outrage and discovered the BPW was not required to notify neighbors when developers in their community were seeking tree removal permits (a euphemism for destroying trees.) In May the council voted on a Bonin motion asking the BPW to fix this notification gap and give the public 30 days notice before it held a hearing on these removal permits.
But CityWatch has learned that the fixes sought by Bonin were apparently not implemented by the BPW although BPW staff informed Bonin’s office that they were.
And this could be just the latest example of City Hall trickery and/or incompetence surrounding the mega-mansion Sullivan Canyon project being sought by the Namvar family.
The head of the family, Ezri Namvar, became known as the “Bernie Madoff of Beverly Hills” after he was prosecuted for running a Ponzi scheme that swindled tens of millions of dollars from members of the Persian Jewish community. Ezri Namvar is now in federal prison but the ownership and management of the Sullivan Canyon property is still in the Namvar family’s hands.
In July 2008, the Department of City Planning prepared an environmental report that okayed the removal of 58 trees by the Namvar developers, of which “up to 25” were protected trees.
After the controversy over Ezri Namvar subsided, the project picked up steam again in 2013.
In February of that year, in an action that now puzzles Sullivan Canyon residents, the BPW held a public hearing to approve a permit for the removal of 56 protected trees on the Namvar property -- more than doubling the number of protected trees to be destroyed, as determined by city planners.
Residents were not present at this February 2013 hearing because there was no city requirement they be informed. While the city is obligated to hold public hearings regarding protected tree removals on private property, it is not required to provide written notice to community members.
After the project finally came to their attention with the arrival of the giant backhoes and chainsaw crews in September 2014, Sullivan Canyon residents contacted Bonin who seemingly rose to the occasion.
In January, Bonin introduced a motion asking the BPW to fix the notification problem. His proposal called for the public to be notified 30 days in advance of BPW consideration of an application to remove more than three protected trees from private property. The motion was adopted by the council in May.
However, CityWatch reviewed BPW meeting files and found no evidence that BPW has adopted rules to address the concerns of Bonin and Sullivan Canyon residents -- and may have misled them to believe it had adopted such rules.
A Bonin staffer told CityWatch a BPW official had informed Bonin’s office that the BPW had taken action to address these issues in June. Representatives of the Sullivan Canyon residents also said recently that they believed the BPW was being cooperative.
Yes, the BPW did take an action in June regarding tree removals – on June 17. But that action – adoption of a policy -- did not address the removal of protected trees on private property as Bonin and the council had directed.
What the BPW approved on June 17 were public notice procedures for issuing permits to remove three or more “street trees.” Street trees are trees located on public property. The Bonin motion was all about setting up notification procedures to protect trees on private property, property owned by developers, for example.
After CityWatch called this apparent discrepancy to the attention of Bonin’s office, a staffer emailed that he had found “some problems in the language” of the BPW action. That’s one way of putting it.
(Jack Schwada is a communications professional currently working in public and media relations and is a Los Angeles native.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
Vol 13 Issue 83
Pub: Oct 13, 2015