Property rights activist takes aim at L.A. County

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The Malibu resident says the county’s revised general plan, which will include a new ecological mapping overlay, will place an “enormous burden” on homeowners.

By P.G. O’Malley/Special to The Malibu Times

The new Significant Ecological Area (SEA) overlay being considered for the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles County’s revised general plan has a local property rights activist charging the county with over-regulation and property rights abuse. But county officials say Malibu resident Anne Hoffman is off base with her criticism of what they describe as a landscape identification tool that has nothing to do with nonconforming land use or zoning as Hoffman suggests.

“We’re into this in a big way,” said Hoffman, president of the Malibu-based Land Use Defense Fund, which was originally founded to challenge land use regulation in the Coastal Commission’s Malibu Local Coastal Plan.

County Senior Regional Planning Assistant Julie Lowry says the idea of the SEA designation is not aimed specifically at the Santa Monica Mountains but is a countywide effort to control subdivision style development anywhere where sensitive natural resources occur. And while Lowry agrees the Santa Monica Mountains are one of the county’s most significant sensitive natural areas, the mountains’ topography makes them generally unsuitable for large subdivisions. More importantly, the draft of the new general plan exempts both new and existing family homes from SEA restrictions countywide.

“What we’re trying to avoid is what happened up on the top of Las Flores Canyon,” said Lowry, who also made the point that the county’s SEA overlay designation doesn’t apply in the coastal zone, which currently falls under Coastal Commission jurisdiction.

The information the county is concerned about is contained in a newsletter Hoffman has been circulating in advance of two interactive public workshops scheduled for this Wednesday, March 17, at the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District and Topanga Canyon Elementary School on Tuesday, March 23.

Hoffman insists she’s only trying to tell the truth about SEAs. She claims she started the campaign because, as a property owner, she doesn’t trust what she calls the county’s verbal guarantees. “If single-family homes are exempt from SEA restrictions, then why map them in the first place?” Hoffman asked. But Lowry insists the single-family exemption is written into the regulatory framework in the SEA designation and to pull out all the single-family homes from county maps would be cost prohibitive.

“I spent a lot of time with Anne Hoffman last summer,” Lowry said, “and I told her then single-family homes were exempt. From what I can tell, it appears that what her group has done is take SEA subdivision requirements and applied them to single-family homes.” One case in point, he said, is that Hoffman suggests only 20 percent of the total area of a single-family lot can be used. “This is not true,” Lowry said, “because, again, SEA regulations don’t apply to single-family homes. The point is to encourage clustering of subdivisions on 20 percent of a property away from whatever natural resources might be present.”

Hoffman also charges that accessory uses such as barns and horse corrals are restricted while Lowry says these uses are classified as accessories to single-family development and therefore exempt. “Put it in writing,” Hoffman said. “I want to see in writing that these ancillary uses are guaranteed by right.”

Hoffman also claims the SEA designation limits homeowners to native vegetation, but Lowry says the idea is that developers who grade subdivision pads should re-landscape slopes and common areas with natives. Once they buy the lots or houses, homeowners are not required to landscape their yards with natives.

Meanwhile, environmental groups are generally supportive of what the county has come up with. “This will put an end to development like what happened in Santa Ynez Canyon in the Pacific Palisades,” Sierra Club’s Dave Brown said. “There are a lot of risks involved in developing in the mountains. The goal is to live in harmony with the land and the environment, and this will add

a little more review and consultation.”

But Hoffman believes the SEA overlay, which the county says it is required to do by state law, will be an “enormous burden” on homeowners and, worse, is “an abuse of due process.”

Lowry said the county will take general plan public comment until June 1 and expects to circulate a revised draft in fall, 2004 when there will be another round of public meetings.