Monday, September 27, 2010

It Can't Be Easy Serving On The Planning Commission

I don't know if you caught the September 16 Planning Commission meeting or not. That kind of thing really is for the truly dedicated when it comes to following the affairs of our city government. Not that it wasn't interesting, because truly it was. I have to admit though, the taste for such a thing must be carefully acquired. Like eating frog's legs or slurping fish eggs. But you need to know this, the bread and butter of all governmental affairs here is the planning for and the building of buildings. Of all sorts. It is to Sierra Madre what computers are to Cupertino. And the Planning Commission is where that highly real nitty gritty gets talked over, done up, wrung out, and then, if things go well, approved.

Two things happened in the course of this 4 hour marathon. The owner and potential purchaser of a property located at 723 Camillo, an empty lot desperately looking for a house, were told that they would need to come back with a better plan if they were going to get the Planning Commission's approval. And the Canyon Zone Advisory Committee had their plans for preserving the unique character of that particular area of our community signed off on and sent to the City Council where its final fate is to be decided. Despite opposition from the usual colorful cast of characters.

Now if that is all you needed to know, then there you are. The whole story. But during this meeting a couple of fairly amusing things occurred and I thought I should share them with you.

First up was the 723 Camillo matter. The owner of that property, the owner's representatives, the folks considering buying that property, and their representatives (including the hoped for home's solicitous designer), were all there to plead their case to the commissioners. But apparently the problem is an extremely sensitive one. In Sierra Madre there are no easy properties left to build on. And most everything flat and rectangular already has a house on it, which leaves only those lots out on the wild mountain frontier available. And the sylvan locale on this night's docket is just about as wild as it gets.

This property is in a part our world covered by the Hillside Management Zone, or HMZ. The idea behind this is to only allow development that properly fits within existing landforms. Something put into place by the previous City Council in order to prevent things such as the building of a knock off Taj Mahal on top of a mountain, which would then dominate the city's topography like a toothache. The HMZ was also designed to ensure that any new homes would be constructed in such a way that we'd avoid the kind of McMansionization we have seen in places like Arcadia. They would need to be in character with existing housing. Yet another way that Sierra Madre has preserved its unique character in a part of the world where few towns seem to care about anything but easy money.

The property in question is located within the orbit of a prominent ridgeline. And you can't build on those things because of our "big house on the hill" aversion. As a matter of fact, you can't even build a house more than 50% of the height of a ridgeline, and then only when you're 100 or so feet away. Which for this particular property means the owners would be forced to build their house in a small corner, with the rest of the lot left entirely vacant.

And since the planned for home under discussion was a bit too large given these conditions, the project looked doomed. So it was then that a representative of that property's owner, someone obviously eager to unload what has basically been a financial white elephant I'm sure, stepped up with a bold gambit. He had decided that the best way to save his client's bacon was to declare that the ridgeline didn't exist. And that what all the members of the Planning Commission had seen with their own eyes wasn't actually there. It was a daunting task.

Steve Austin, the daring gentleman in question, stepped up to the podium and attempted to make his case. The folks at his company had checked all their maps, and they couldn't find it. The map didn't exist. Which in his mind also meant the ridgeline didn't exist. He also later said that this ridgeline, which didn't exist on any maps he had, and therefore must not exist, was located further to the west. A contradiction in many people's minds.

The Planning Commissioners replied that the map was included in the Environmental Impact Report, and was both EIR approved and included in the paperwork they were all holding. And this map clearly showed what Mr. Austin said did not exist.

Mr. Austin then wisely modified his claims a bit. There is something there he admitted, but it wasn't a ridgeline. Rather it is a high slope with a flat top.

The Planning Commissioners then asked that if Mr. Austin was certain the ridgeline that everyone else can see as plain as the noses on their faces isn't actually there, why doesn't he hire a surveyor and prove it doesn't exist?

Mr. Austin dodged that one. Racking up further expenses for his client wasn't what he was being paid to do that evening. He then attempted one more risky ploy.

"The map you have now is just something arbitrarily adopted by some group of people," ventured Mr. Austin.

To which one member of the Planning Commission tartly replied, "Oh, then you must mean us, the Planning Commission people. Because it was us."

It was soon decided that all the concerned parties would go back to the drawing board to modify their plans per Planning Commission recommendations, and then try again for approval at a later date. And it looks like, at least for now, that ridgeline has returned to the planet floor.

The Opposition To The Canyon Zone Advisory Committee Collapses Into A Wet Heap

There were only two final opportunities left to stop what the Red Herring Brigade fears the most. That being a neighborhood where local Bob the Builders can make some major dough dipping and flipping houses, but planning is controlled by the bothersome people who happen to live there. The problem being that those people, happy with their unique and attractive community as it is, really don't see the point in letting a bunch of gauche hammer jockeys wreck it just because they can't make a living doing anything else.

The Contra Canyonites who came to oppose the Canyon Zone Advisory Committee's Canyon Specific Ordinances had the following arguments to make:

1) People in the Canyon wouldn't have any place to park their Motor Homes and Recreational Vehicles. Thus endangering its reputation as "Upper Slab City."

2) The restrictions contained within the committee's recommendations are far too restrictive, and unenclosed open spaces such as gazebos wouldn't be counted as being part of your home's square footage. And if gazebos are endangered, where will Canyon dwellers go to spoon?

3) Everybody in the Canyon knows each others' names and they're pals, so you shouldn't have planning. It would rob the neighborhood of its neighborliness and that would rob people of their spirit. Great emotional misery would follow.

4) Under the CZAC's recommendations people would be able to count things such as their attics as part of their overall square footage. Which could then be used as habitable space. This diminishes the need for additional buildable space in the Canyon, thereby depriving Bob the Builder of money making opportunities.

5) Angle/Plane height restrictions would prevent the construction of anything but saltboxes and airplane houses.

6) Mighty fine houses that were built in years past would never be able to be built now. Which I guess means people would lose the freedom to spontaneously tear down their existing homes when in a bad mood.

7) CEQA reviews and CUPs would be required of those who don't want them.

After Public Comment was over, the Planning Commission briefly discussed the above objections. The CEQA issue was deemed to have some validity, and a tweak was administered to the paperwork that took care of the problem. The rest of these arguments were easily debunked, subjected to dry planning humor, then permanently consigned to a round file.

Personally I found this display to be a bit of a disappointment. I'd heard that the Contra Canyonites were a tough and well-versed band of ruffians with some serious arguments to make against the approval of the Canyon Zone Advisory Committee's recommendations. But in the end their overall effect at this meeting was not much more than a comedic interlude.

Of course, the Contra Canyonites do get one last opportunity to save the day. And that would be to stand before the City Council in a couple weeks and once again review such carefully reasoned arguments as how planning harshes people's mellows and jams their heads.

We have much to look forward to.

Bonus Coverage: Sierra Madre Fees Run Amuck

Another excellent report from "jo-el" has been posted. This time on the upcoming Sierra Madre Fee Hikes. The public hearing on the matter takes place during tomorow night's City Council meeting. You can (and should) link to it here. Post includes a link to the NBS Study on the matter. More on this tomorrow.

79 comments:

  1. I watched the entire planning commission meeting. I have to give it to those commissioners, I don't think it's something I would want to do. With that being said, that whole debate regarding Camillo was very interesting when the applicant said he wanted to live "there with his three kids" then stated that he buys land "all the time to see what they can build" ... did anyone else catch that?

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  2. Those kids are very bad; he must move his family regularly. Perhaps he's insured them for millions and is building on that lot in the hope that when it starts to move, as the previous housed moved, there'll be a regrettable accident he can lay at the feet of the Planning Commission and collect twice.

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  3. The Planning Commissioners don't get enough credit. Knowledgeable, dedicated, and on the dais every two weeks to hold fast to the City's zoning ordinances which are constantly under assault. The night in question the vandals and goths were the local realtor/developer/land use consortium who have been behind some of the more egregious projects of the last ten years. Friends and neighbors? His wife has never once in the seven or so years since the house was built spoken to a single neighbor. The only reason they haven't flipped their house is because the down market won't support the million plus he thinks he can sell it for when the economy rebounds... lol The day after the Planning Committee Meeting he had a crew from the local tree killing operation lobbing big healthy branches off an oak that has withstood his ongoing assaults for years.

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  4. Wouldn't that make this house a mobile home, 6:29? In which case he'd be much better off parking it in the canyon. Squalling brats and all.

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  5. The Sierra Madre City Council is proposing new fees for our services. Please visit www.jo-el.info.

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  6. International person of mystery jo-el has posted another excellent report. However, if you click on the link provided here it won't take you there. I have added it to today's post with the correct url.

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  7. And speaking of 723 Camillo, it was part of the infamous Nutzell Tract wherein unscrupulous developers, in creating nice flat parcels, filled in between the gullies and canyons to created buildable pads and discovered to their horror ,after these fresh new dream houses were built, that they had a problem with subsidence. In most cases the owners had to pick up the tab for new foundations. This should be a cautionary tale to all of you penny ante developers who want to get rich quick.

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  8. Nutzell was a Sierra Madre City Councilman. Sometime, when our historical researcher has some extra time, the connection to his service on the city council and the development of the hillside tract bearing his name will happen. In the meantime, questions can be asked that will lead to the research: how was this tract allowed to go forward? who was on the Planning Commission at the time? who remembers the mud damage to the homes below on Foothill Ave. from the lot grading above on Valle Vista?

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  9. I just read the jo-el post and I am shocked. Why is the city all of a sudden asking for more money on EVERYTHING??

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  10. The existing zoning for the canyon now is R-1-15,000. These are the standards for the lots in other sections of the city which means that practicaly every project for the canyon 'lots of record,' those that exist now, has to pay fees and apply for exceptions (variances) to those stadards. There is a house for sale now on Woodland, at the corner of Alta Vista Dr., that could be remodeled as it now sits but under the current standards it would have to apply for front yard, two side yard, backyard, lot coverage, and parking variances. Actually, it would have to probalby have to do much the same under the new standards although there is much relief from the R-1-15,000 requirements. Why? It is one of the smallest lots in the canyon area that you will remember was originally subdivided for tent sites.

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  11. When buying a property in Sierra Madre, REQUIRE a soilsreport. The city is crisscrossed by many major and minor fault lines, as well as cut and fill areas that had been developed before proper compaction requirements were in place. If you are building new or just an addition you will need one, regardless what the realtor says.

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  12. The Ridge Line EXISTS...September 27, 2010 at 8:35 AM

    What Saff missed with the Camillo application was, they claimed the big house would be hidden by the trees. Problem is...the HMZ does not allow for existing trees to mitagate the view of the structure. If the trees are no longer there, the VERY BIG house will be visiable.

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  13. Fees Are Never High EnoughSeptember 27, 2010 at 8:40 AM

    Rather than finding cost saving ways of keeping fees reasonable, it's alot easier to pile on higher fees.
    Our current city council is starting to strangle the people of this town. Thank you Joe M. and John B., who never let an opportunity to increase fees and taxes go by. I guess we get what we pay for, you voted for them.

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  14. The Canyon lot that 8:29 am is referring to is half the size it used to be. In the past 20 years or so, the owner sold off the back portion leaving an exceedingly substandard lot. It's no wonder it will need a variance.

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  15. 9:35, the lot 8:29 is referring to is the falling down shack at Alta Vista/Woodland intersection. Remodel? How about rebuild? The amazing thing is that no one has ever driven into the upstairs from the road that runs just a few feet (without a guardrail) from the upper story.

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  16. Oh that one,941,i stand corrected!

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  17. I hate to repeat myseLf too often but ... SO MANY SHENANIGANS, SO LITTLE TIME!

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  18. Mr. Austin is an ideal candidate for our City Council...he can distort and mislead obvious facts as well as John Buchanan and Joe Mosca.

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  19. Mountains? What mountains? Those are just lots held at an angle so people can see them better.

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  20. I have a neighbor who did an garage addition to his house. He had the plans approved and made changes based on what the city wanted and when the final inspection was due, the inspector denied the work becauase of mistake changes he made on the original approvals with the changes required by the city.

    The inspector approved the plans and the work was done to plan and then the city decided that the plans were wrong, even though they were approved and the mistake was entirely the city own doing.

    Then my neighbor was told that for a fee (a couple thousand dollars) the project could be approved finally with the changes or he could tear out the changes and then do the work over.

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  21. The city is throwing one huge money demand after another at us. What are they funding, a nuclear weapons program?

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  22. Okay, how much more has to be thrown at us before we wake up to realize we have been had?
    It's time to get organized and be serious about a solution.
    Time is of the essence!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  23. Its those indirect charges that get you. Throw in administrative costs, and unsubstantiated maintenance costs, ect. there is no way to figure out what the exact expenses are. And to give them power to raise those fees each time the budget is reviewed is very dangerous. It is time to look at cutting staff and holding the line on hiring and raises, not raising fees.

    Another consideration is the fact they are raising fees on businesses. Many cities are now giving businesses incentives for moving into their towns, as well as holding the line on current fees to help the small businesses. Not Sierra Madre, they continue to ignore the plight of our shops in town.

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  24. WHERE DID THE 23 MILLION bond $$$$$$ go to?

    I'm totally convinced this town is on the same level or damn close to it.....as the City of Bell.

    What are we going to do about it?

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  25. Indeed,where did the money go?Did someone just whisper,"Racketeering"?Something smells and it isn't from roses.

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  26. One of you lawyers out there, quick, what's the statue of limitations on misappropriations of public funds?

    Let's work forwards from the oldest still prosecutable misdeed and nail some of these b*****ds.

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  27. In regards to the fees, once again a government agency is raising fees and costs when the citizens are having to save money and make less. This is arrogant elitist attitude. I know that the fees have to reflect the costs that the city bears, but with all the people working there, they obviously can justify any fee increase due to their huge overhead. Dealing with that huge bureaucracy at city hall is a nightmare.

    I am shocked at the fee required for a police officer, $128 per hour, this works out to over $250,000 per year per officer. It is time to get rid of the police in this town and take the Sheriff.

    The fire department is supposed to be volunteer, yet there are some very high salaries paying our volunteers!

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  28. You know what is particularly awful about that $128 per hour cop rental fee is that we could hire security gaurds for events like "Dickens Village" or the Wistaria Festival for about a tenth of that. We're being ripped of big time.

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  29. Wow! The City of Bell passed fee increses (kinda like at budget planning cycles) rather than agendizing, voting (with residential apporval) on any increases.

    The State Attorney General is now investigating just such a practice as a criminal procedure in the city of Bell.

    And the City Council with Administration in tow wants a license to increase at will and with no voter approval, just because a "consultant" (like the one who probably advised Bell) thinks we have an opportunity.

    They are looking for funds to increase: salaries, pension benefits, employees, fire and police not to mention the bond indebtedness fiasco. " TAX AND FEE AND THEY WILL COME"

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  30. Getting a lot of traffic on The Tattler today. Something is going on.

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  31. Why the need for all this money? Why is it always more? Ever since Joe became maypr we're getting hit with increases. Who can afford to live here? Certainly not any one on retirement!

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  32. Planning Commissioners seem to be able to put personal politics and bias aside, and adhere to the policies of the city, God bless 'em.
    That great big, big house would have been very bad, and yes anonymous @5:11 a.m., I did catch the applicant's words to the effect that "on all the land we buy, the houses we build are as big as possible.
    My favorite moment was when Commissioner Paschal said that if the applicant wanted that kind of home, maybe he should build in Arcadia, not Sierra Madre.
    Amen!

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  33. gimme my castle or i'll sue youSeptember 27, 2010 at 1:32 PM

    To me the best moment at the PC was when the young comm. with the dark hair (Van dervelde?) told the applicant that sending a threatening letter from a lawyer was not the best way to start! Then a surprise because it turned out that the applicant was not the owner, but is in escrow, and that the owner's lawyer had sent the threatening letter.
    Hum. If I were the applicant, I'd jump out of escrow fast.
    So who's the owner who leads with the lawyer?

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  34. Just adding my thanks to the planning commission for upholding community standards, and to researchers such as Jo-el.

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  35. So this guy wanted to build a mansion in the sky and didn't know that:

    1) The HMZ has some teeth and
    2) The previous house had t be torn down because of faulty grading

    The question is, who was his realtor?

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  36. 11:21 The City did not spend $23 Million of bond money. The $23 Milliion is the total debt of principle and interest. It is the interest that kill you.

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  37. 1:32 The owner is none other than Capital Source. They also own 1 CArter and Stonehouse.

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  38. Okay, 1:59 pm, you make a very valid point. So how was the principle spent? It's what, $12,000,000 or $14,000,000 million? That's enough to get my attention. How was that spent?

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  39. At least the Planning Commission seems to have the best interset of the City at heart. They follow the rules. But remember if anyone gets turned down they get to go to G4. That fact scares the hell out of me.

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  40. 2:02 That is the question someone needs to ask the City?

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  41. 2:01 - Great Find!

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  42. Who is this Steve Austin guy?
    Is he the same person who came to the PC on the Carter house design stuff?
    Was he representing Capital Source or Mr. Ho?

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  43. 2:01 wow!
    Capital Source owns that lot? How come?
    And what the hell would they have to threaten the city about?

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  44. What color sunglasses does Capital Source have to wear to make ridgelines vanish?

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  45. disclosure is not optionalSeptember 27, 2010 at 2:15 PM

    So does that mean that realtor Ho was the applicant's realtor, and did not make it clear to the applicant that his house had to conform to the HMZ. Wonder what Realtor Ho tells the people who buy at Carter.

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  46. Ho better brush up on just what he is obligated to tell prospective buyers.

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  47. It is a magic flying ridgeline. It only lands when you want it to.

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  48. 2:14, maybe Dorn Plaz lost an old pair of sunglasses that Capital Source found.
    If the city has reached a settlement with Capital Source, how can Capital Source carry out a lawyerly threat - is it because the lot on Camillo is not part of the Heflin estate?
    How many more properties in Sierra Madre does CS own?

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  49. Don't know 2:15, but hopefully the poor chumps who buy up at One Carter will be told that they are purchasing property that sits on the "triangle of death" FIRE, FLOOD and EARTHQUAKE.

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  50. The house that slid down the hill.

    Was it built by Dorn Platz?

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  51. WHAT'S that you say? The current water meter installation fees are $600 for the 3/4" and 1" meters AND the 1 1/2"- 2" meters are $808.-$1018.
    NOW the fees are proposed to go down to the actual costs. Give me a break! How long have these jokers been overcharging for the installation of meters? And would someone tell me how there can be that much difference in the cost of the price for the different sized meters. The labor cost has to be the same for all meters, doesn't it?

    These fees are created by swindlers for sure!

    Thanks jo-el.

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  52. The Vortex Of Imminent Doom, 2:22 the 1st.

    Acronym: VOID

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  53. you're kidding

    not kidding just take a look at the stonehouse map.
    it was listed as Parcle 3 not lot 3
    http://cityofsierramadre.com/docs_forms/files/stonehouseProposalPlanMap20091013.pdf

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  54. 2:22, no the house that was torn down was originally a part of the Nutzell tract.
    Somebody know the specifics?
    I just remember a lady going to the Carter hearings, and giving the bad news that the mud slide damage caused by the Nutzel grading and building in the hillsides took 10 years to resolve with the insurance company.
    Of course her words fell on the deaf ears of the Hillside Development Council.

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  55. 2:22,
    no, that sounds more like serial tree killer, Tim Hayden.

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  56. don't forget the murder Mr. HoSeptember 27, 2010 at 2:46 PM

    The Stonegate realtor is also required to inform potential buyers of the murder victim they found on that land when Galletly lived there. Don't know exactly where it was, but somewhere on the lower land one man was found dead, one wounded. Might give some homebuilders pause.

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  57. I understand the lot that was before the Planning Commission shares a boundary with the Heflin estate so perhaps it's maybe not part of the proposed Stonehouse tract but a lot nonetheless owned by Capital Source? What is known is that there is movement, downhill movement. If I were the applicant I'd like to know a lot more about its stability before I started building. Or, if he's a onesy twosie developer maybe it doesn't matter to him. He'll be gone and bankrupt before the new owner even senses the horizon slipping away.

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  58. As Aretha says, Who's zoomin' who?

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  59. When is this endlessly irritating, LOUD parade of trucks going to stop going up and down Grand View! It's so distracting, I've gotten any work done today!

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  60. Don't tell me that this Camillo lot was not included in the settlement that we paid the city attorney probably millions for.

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  61. TYPO-A TRUCK MUST HAVE BEEN DRIVING BY AGAIN! ...HAVEN'T GOTTEN ANY WORK DONE TODAY!

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  62. This is not good:

    "The map you have now is just something arbitrarily adopted by some group of people," ventured Mr. Austin.

    Sounds like a Colontuono tip-off to developer point. Like here's what you can sue about.

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  63. The lot on Camillo was part of the Stonehouse tract. It was part of the tour that the Don Platz people orchestrated a few years back for the surrounding property owners (and anyone else interested). It was followed by a hearing at the firestation (Search and Rescue station). It was subsequently removed from the Stonehouse project to be sold on its own. Several people asked during the tour if they (the lawyers) were aware of the unstable condition of the lot, and they indicated that tests had been done to insure a stable building pad. Sandy was a part of that tour and meeting.

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  64. Is this the Steve Austin of the Zimmerman Group? (no relation to our past mayor).
    zimmermangroup.com

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  65. Great information 3:19. You gotta wonder what kind of abracadabra was performed on the lot to stabilize it.

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  66. If it is the guy 3:19, Sierra Madre's sort of a step down.

    "Once in California, Steve managed the entitlement and design of large scale master planned communities including two communities with more than a thousand residential units.

    Mr. Austin provides unmatched civil engineering services by leveraging his experience with the most advanced civil engineering software on the market. He has proven the ability to evaluate multiple design alternatives quickly, while considering project revenue and infrastructure cost implications. His skilled drafting team is able to quickly complete civil engineering projects of a higher quality and lower cost than others in the industry. "

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  67. Ummmmmm, forgot to mention he is able to adjust ridgelines as to not interfere with proposed site planning.

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  68. Whatever the cops are paid, I think it's too much if they can't find a way to be friendly and helpful. I've never had a ticket, or any kind of incident. But if I see a cop in front of my house, and I respectfully ask what is going on, I expect more than a rude brushoff. Maybe I am a frightening senior citizen, or maybe these guys should realize how good they've got it here. They seem badge-heavy.

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  69. Are you talking Stonehouse Cold Steve Austin, or the 23 Million Dollar Man Steve Austin?

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  70. Sierra Madreans for Sane BuildingSeptember 27, 2010 at 4:02 PM

    The Planning Commission should have the same authority that the council has.

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  71. A hybrid, 3:49. The Stonehouse Millions o' Dollars Steve Austin

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  72. There is one thing you can say for certain about Steve Austin.

    The man can move mountains.

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  73. channel 3 watcher 1stSeptember 27, 2010 at 4:44 PM

    Tattler, you missed one of the funniest arguments presented by the Canyon Code Nos:
    The code makes everyone live in a 500 square foot house

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  74. Yip, that's what the goofy Contra Canyonites tried to make everyone believe, that only 500 square foot houses could be built. The truth? The minimum size for a dwelling unit must be 500 square foot. They outdid themselves in misinterpreting the Canyon Zone Advisory Committee's recommendations. Makes you wonder if they really can read a set of plans or the City's ordinances. Or, for that matter, a contract.

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  75. Anonymous at 8:25: Why is the City asking for more money?
    Why does a dog lick its balls? Because it can.

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  76. The hillside developments in Sierra Madre are in the category of "troubled real estate assets" for Capital Source, and Capital Source has brought in "troubled real estate asset" experts, from San Diego, Costa Mesa, Laguna Nigel....

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  77. Why during the economic downturn when other cities are putting in place economies,Sierra Madre is increasing our fees and simultaneously increasing salaries for City workers; while other communities have instituted layoffs,shorter work week,and or furloughs.There is something very strange about this picture.To carry this forward is certainly grounds for a recall....

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    ReplyDelete