Sunday, November 30, 2014

Tony Brandenburg: The Many P's of Black Friday, or Acrostic Fun with the LAPD

Bob Baker and friends
I refused to shop on Black Friday, but that hardly meant I was going to stay inside. After all, I'm not under house arrest. I did wash the dishes, so I had my hall pass. So out the door I went.

I grabbed the truck, which was lacking petrol, and headed downtown. I was on my way to Grand Park in the heart of the downtown area to sit and listen to a group of protesters planning and problem solving. In fact, the theme of my Black Friday seemed to be the letter P.  So much so that I expected Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to pop out and say to me, "Today's letter of the day is the letter P."

Before I got out the door, some very sad news came screaming down the pike. Bob Baker, the brilliant puppeteer of Los Angeles, had died. Huge bummer.

I loved Bob and his work. His theater in EchoPark was a mainstay of the city, and over the years I had seen a number of productions there. Over the years I had seen his work, and in fact, I was fortunate enough to not only meet him, but to also watch him perform at the school I work at a few years ago.

He was the only puppeteer that I know of who had a licensing agreement outside the Disney Corporation who could make puppets of  Walt's characters. In fact, I have one that I love very much.

He was an amazing puppeteer and a kind man. Apparently, I am not alone in this sentiment. Here is what the Los Angeles Times says (click here):

The Los Angeles City Council designated Baker's theater a historic-cultural landmark in 2009 after a parade of puppets marched across the council's ornate horseshoe-shaped desk and other Southern California puppeteers rallied to support the landmark nomination. Baker, ever the workhorse, missed watching the 14-0 vote because he was staging a previously scheduled series of shows in Paramount.

Tonight I was driving through Echo Park and I snapped off a picture of the theater. It is running the Nutcracker Suite. It's that time of year. I had almost forgotten. That show is a favorite that I had seen a couple of times. I wonder if this year's performance will be the last one.

I am sure going to miss you Bob Baker. Ninety years wasn't nearly enough to capture your talent.

Prostate candidates
I have one. I know I have one because I get to see a doctor once a year and he digs for it. I am about fifteen waves into this practice.

The unfortunate finger wave is now a yearly ritual for me as we track its growth, and while this is a rather innocuous unit - reachable by probing forefingers - it now controls my ever so spectacular silver years.

It's certainly not as spectacular as the colonoscopy - also known as the Grandaddy of All Finger Waves - but its an already annoying pastime that is overstaying its welcome.

I remember the first time I got lubed and tubed. During the initial consultation, the doctor explained to my new bride that she was welcome to watch the internal procedure on a tv screen through the endoscope. As if it wasn't humiliating enough that I had to discuss it with her in the room.

I suggested that she bring some popcorn.

Which brings us to the next subject.

Pee Pee
I have to go. A whole lot. It's not a cause for alarm. It's been part of my life since I was a kid. If I drink, I have to pee five minutes later.

Of course, this makes traveling difficult. It means that I can't drink anything unless I want to force the car to pull over at every Flying J and Travel Center and truck stop on earth.

Even more difficult is the necessity to go when walking through any area that has gone undergone the gentrification process. The reason is because these areas are designed to get rid of noncommercial people whose only need is to go pee.

I have learned to find Quickie Pee Stops when I'm downtown. Union Station, Phillipe's, and the one across from Mr. Churro are all free. The one at Burger King costs a thin quarter.

The one at Union Station is particularly awful early in the morning. Just a heads up. Pardon the pun.

You are not generally welcome in the bathrooms of any businesses unless you plan to use the services provided while you are in a gentrified areas. That is because these areas are designed for the rich, and that excludes not only the homeless, but anyone who makes under a hundred thousand dollars a year.

That means me and probably you. And if you need to pee more than once every couple of hours, I have bad news for you.

You'd better start wearing a diaper.

Another great plus in the world of gentrification is the charge you will pay for parking your car. There are meters and parking lots that are designed to absorb your money for the use of the streets you already pay taxes to keep up. I call meters an exercise in double-dipping, but in our tax me, spank me country, that is all par for the course I guess.

Now, for all of you paranoid people who think the government is watching you and tracking you, I want to toss a little something out there to you.

If you are politically active, or if you participate in any sort of civil discourse that could be viewed as being problematic, I want to assure you that, yes, you are being watched and spied on.

And if you throw a credit card into a parking meter, you have just left a digital footprint.

Say Cheese!

After paying cash somewhere over in Chinatown, and going pee on Olvera Street, and then walking a few blocks to the civic center, I found there was plenty of free parking for the eight Department of Homeland Security vans, and the thirty police cars. They were parked on the street my tax dollars built.

They must have belonged to the many officers who were just standing around chatting, and getting paid overtime for doing absolutely nothing. I walked along with my tourist wife, and we marveled at all of the busy men standing around chatting on their cell phones.

If you decide to skip out on feeding the meters on these protest days, guess what? Officer Overtime probably won't even notice.

Protesters in the Past and Present
Protesting brings a plethora of digital footprints. You are being photographed and spied on. You are under surveillance.

For me, this is nothing new. I came from punk rock in the late seventies and early eighties. In those days my face was in the files of both with LAPD and the FBI, along with Huntington Beach and Newport Beach PDs. They didn't quite understand what we were up to, so they watched us, measured us, and documented us.

They would also raid our clubs and kick our asses.

Nowadays there are surveillance devices that film you in high definition and can track and record conversations that are 100 feet away. A man with a camera and two titanium hip replacements explained this to me as I puff-puff-puffed up Cardiac Hill Street Blues praying for a toilet. And oxygen.

I think I can, I think I can.

I asked him if you can get the footage through the Freedom of Information Act requests. He told me that, yes, it is possible, but I would need to figure out which agency was actually doing the filming. He shared that they still have the discretion to deny the footage, or to edit it, or to leave it tied up for years in legal wrangling.

Ain't government great?
I was listening to a police officer explain to passersby that the police totally support peaceful protests as long as the protesters follow directions. Of course what he failed to point out is that they give conflicting directions to protesters so that they can step in and arrest them. I have seen this happen many times.

Anyway, while the officer explained this I stopped to listen and was being filmed. Not that I care. I have been filmed my entire life. However, there is something you should know.

Your picture, plus the images of your children from those school picture days, all go into data banks. That way they can figure out who you are by using face recognition software.

And they do.

Say cheese again.

Park Meetings and People Talking
We met our friend G-Man at Grand Park. There was a meeting going on by concerned protesters. Many were frustrated by the lack of cohesion and organization in the protests that week.

I understood their concern. I have been to a lot of protests over the years and these things are usually pretty spontaneous and loose. However, this week I had seen the 110 Freeway shut down, and I had seen a number of people arrested. I had also been surrounded by six cops in riot gear who firmly told me I needed to leave when they spotted me filming another group of cops.

See, the government is allowed to film and spy on you. They get pissed off when you do it back.

Anyway, I sat on the grass and listened as a number of people voiced their concerns about the lack of direction, incomprehensible objectives, and general wandering about that had been the rule with the week's protests.

They had asked beforehand for a loose, discussion-style meeting. No filming. No streaming. Everyone I saw there seemed to be following those requests. Of course, I can't speak for the police - who were standing around in two friendly groups of about five each - amicable, informative, and approachable.

After the second to last speaker was a young black woman who asserted that this demonstration wasn't about our own personal agendas. She then went on to state it should really focus on what she felt it should be about.

In other words, it was about her agenda.

"This is about young black men," she said, "can it be about them, and not about blond hair, and blue eyes?"

Laughter. Applause.

I sat there and thought about what she said. I was sitting in this park out of respect for Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill man who happened to be white, and for Darrien Hunt, a young black man who was killed while cosplaying.

And I rubbed my blue eyes, scratched my once blond hair - which is now graying. I thought about how many times I was beaten up on my way home from school because of my skin shell casing and color. I thought about growing up poor and on welfare.

I stood up amid the cheers to the moderator's call to action, "Are you ready to march?!"

Then I turned around and left.

I walked over to my Sicilian-Italian American spouse. Her family could not buy property in Arcadia because they were wops and guineas that weren't allowed to be shown properties by the Realtor associations.  They were allowed to buy properties only in Temple City, El Monte or San Gabriel.

And I simply said, "I will follow, silently support, and watch this group. I will not march with them. They do not value my opinions. They do not respect what I am."

MJ and I stayed well behind, and then tapered off. The G-Man decided to march.

I found her a bench and told her to wait for me. Then I walked twenty blocks back to grab my truck. I returned to pick her up.

Pissed Off
And I thought about the meeting that I had just wasted my afternoon on. And that there was every indication that those people were about to get arrested.

And I came to a bitter conclusion.

I will not need a finger wave this year because I believe I have just received one.

The phrase Po-Po is a slang for police.

Urban legend attributes this slang to California surf culture. The police on patrol used beach cruisers and traveled in pairs. On their vests were the letters P and O. When traveling or walking together the letters spelled PO-PO.

Before leaving today my spouse asked a lawyer friend if there were any precautions we should take when protesting. The advise was simple and direct:

1. Keep moving. Keep an eye out for any attempt to box in or get out flanked.
2. Listen very closely for orders to disperse re: unlawful assembly.
3. Figure out a way for everyone to have cameras that upload in real time to cloud based storage.
4. Never, ever, ever argue or preach to the cops. Accept any arrest. Assert  fifth amendment rights and hope that the videos show innocence.

On my way to the truck I heard sirens from three locations, and then the inevitable news vans. Then helicopters. A group of kids were grinding their boards and doing street tricks. I snapped a picture right before they jumped off their boards and got ready to run. I started to chuckle. It's weird, I actually enjoy life and laugh sometimes.

"You don't need to hide tonight guys. Just stay away from the protests. Tonight the police don't care about you skateboarding. They will probably leave you alone all week. Have fun. Be safe. "

I went to get my truck. I watched bucket loads of cops heading up 1st Street. And I then realized that after all of their posturing, they walked right into a trap and got themselves kettled in.

And sure enough, we drove up 1st, over the bridge onto Beverly, and there they were. Locked up on a street, surrounded and enclosed by 100 LAPD in riot gear.

As I drove over the bridge I pointed out to Mary that there was no sidewalk on the bridge. Just traffic lanes.

"How much do you want to bet? They walked over the bridge, blocking traffic, and gave the police the only excuse they needed to shut this down."

The police, I was told later, had been extremely helpful, and true to my prediction, had baited the trap, instructed their movement, escorted them, and used the protesters trusting naivete to set them up and lock them in.

They gave the marchers conflicting directions. The marchers would follow the first set of directions, while another group followed the conflicting set of directions. The police then used this clusterfuck to say the protesters were not following directions. Then they escorted them over the bridge. And used that as a foundation for shutting it all down. The protesters had disrupted traffic.

Traffic was blocked both ways and there was no way we were going anywhere. There were literally a hundred cops on the scene. Rifles ready with rubber bullets. Fully clothed in riot gear.

We crawled, literally, to the intersection. It was clear that we'd need to make a left on Alvarado. There was no where else to go, and no where to park. So we sat. And we sat. And we sat. Then we sat some more. It was noisy with lots of helicopters and sirens going off, and the lights. Blue and red, lighting up the sky like a show at the Laserium.

We looked around for a couple of people to see if they wanted a ride out of the trap they had been led into. And we sat for some more. Then I looked at my gas gauge, and realized it was on empty. So I did what any other good consumer would do. I pulled into the Chevron gas station.

Never mind that it was filled with fifty cops in body armor and helmets.

"Oh my God, what are you doing?" Mary couldn't believe I had pulled in to the station.

"We need gas. If we run out on the street, we will only create another problem. So for the next twenty minutes, I'm a customer. I'm buying gasoline."

I was ashamed. I swore I wouldn't buy anything today.

So, with some back and forth maneuvering, I pulled up to a pump and started, I thought, laying in some gasoline. Then I stood on the back fender and looked around for the G-Man.

Mary started laughing and continued to laugh for the next twenty minutes. Apparently she has never seen me pump gas at the OK Corral.

A riot cop with a baton walked toward my truck and started yelling, "Who does this truck belong to?" I was standing on the fender. I guess he wasn't making assumptions. I put my arms up in the air and said, "It's mine."

"Well, you need to move it. We need to park vehicles here."

I put my arms down, and pointed to the pump, which was, I thought, putting gas into my truck. I answered, "I'm out of gas. I needed to buy some. I'm a customer of Chevron."

Then I smiled. He looked over and saw that, indeed, I was a customer of Chevron. "OK. Finish up and you need to move."

I assured him that I would. It turned out that it took another ten minutes because I forgot to put in my pin number. It was all a bit overstimulating. Once I was finished I got into the truck and I looked up, and miracle of miracles, there was the G-Man walking through the station parking lot trying to figure out how to get to the bus stop.

We gave him a ride. And then we went home.

Apparently my privilege, and not my aloof nature and wits, had gotten me out of a pickle once again.

Clearly, the organizers who set up this protest, and those who sat in the park wanting to show their support for the Ferguson protesters, were there to voice some shared outrage over the corruption of the Ferguson Police, the District Attorney, and the failure of the Grand Jury.

However, they lost focus, and momentum. This is not unique to Los Angeles. There is a similar splintering all over. As long as we assert our unique differences at the cost of our greater selves, we are lost as a species. Let alone the short term goal of social equity and justice.

It's not about skin shell covering. This runs way deeper. But if there is a single group in all of this, those who believe they should lead, I suggest they get over their youth privilege and find an experienced leader and speaker instead. You need to go covert in your planning. You need to stop trusting the word of the police. You need to change laws that protect the police, and dismantle the power of their union that excuses and enables their behavior. You need to push through bills to demilitarize them.

Oh. Oops. Sorry. That is my privilege speaking. Again.

The general assembly and call for a general strike did accomplish something. It was successful in making me feel like a stupid old white guy with blue eyes getting in the way of the directionless idealists. In the not so unique style of part time protesters and communist-lite socialists. In the way of potential leaders who would rather have a pissing contest than lead a movement against a power structure that hates all of its citizens.

And so, the Ferguson situation is not my battle.

Not in Los Angeles, anyway.

It's going to play out in Missouri for now. Yes, it is a concern for me. But it is also being made increasingly clear to me that this one is not mine to fight.

I know how, and when, to step back. And I know when a lack of direction, leadership, and focus is going to quickly funnel an important issue straight down the drain. There are way too many cooks in the kitchen.

I know when it's time to let someone else drive the bus.

Now, if you'll kindly excuse me, I need to pee again.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Deja Vu Christmas: The Pink Cow Is Still In The Creche?

Pink: November 2014
I am often baffled by the indifference of mankind to its own foibles. Not that I believe things could ever get all that much better, mind you. I'm hardly that naive. After all, we are an infinitely fallible variety of creature, and it would take the act of a remarkably benign creator to actually care enough to rescue us from a mess that we are helpless to do much if anything about.

And when you consider the infinite size and immense scope of the universe, and our truly insignificant and eternally bumbling role in it, this makes any acts of mercy even more remarkable. I cannot for the life of me imagine why any being having such ineffable powers would even want to bother with us. Certainly there must be far more interesting things for the Master of the Universe to do.

So much for my religious illiteracy. But there is something happening in Sierra Madre of spiritual significance that I can wrap my head around. And that is the continued presence of the pink cow in the Kersting Court creche. We posted an article about the original appearance of this vividly colored bovine in the Nativity Scene back on December 23, 2013, and assumed it would have had enough of an effect that natural earth tones in the form of paint would be brought to bear and things returned to what they had always been.

The picture in the upper left hand side of this post was taken just a few days ago. It shows our unfortunate creche cow, back where it was first spotted last year, and still colored a shocking pink.

We're not quite sure what to do here. Maybe someone could form a subcommittee for Friends of the Arts. Call it Friends of the Pink Cow, perhaps. Mission Statement: raise enough money to paint him brown and restore his dignity. All donations are tax deductible. Yes, we do take VISA. Think pink thoughts.

What follows is the story we told last year about our Nativity Scene's shocking Pink Cow. I guess we'll just have to keep telling this one until things finally get put right.

What's Up With the Pink Cow in the Nativity Scene? (Dec 23, 2013): This will be a story told in 4 photographs. An alert and not especially happy resident of our fine community stopped by my house Saturday morning with some pictures related to the creche (or nativity scene if you prefer) currently set up in the park at Kersting Court. The complaint being the inclusion of a bright pink cow.

Picture 1: This was taken in 2008, and before the pink deed was done. If you look to the lower right, you will see the creche cow in question, seated placidly behind the long nose of one of the camels. It is a very traditional look for this kind of statuary, and how our cow had appeared for quite some years.

Picture 2: We now flash forward to Sierra Madre's 2012 4th of July Parade. This was the part of that event belonging to the Friends of the Arts. You can see what appears to be our cow from the 2008 creche, but looking decidedly different. She has been painted shocking pink, with her horns now a shining gold. To me this depiction is reminiscent of the Biblical tale of Moses and the Golden Calf.

Picture 3: Situated behind the cow from our community creche were signs that exhorted us to "think pink cow." I do not know what was actually meant by this. Maybe it is an absurdist art statement? Having gone to a state college, I can kind of get that. Certainly it does have a derivative Ubu Roi sort of Dada feel.

Picture 4: This photo was taken just last Friday. It shows our pink cow back in the creche and awaiting the arrival of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, it is still painted prison holding cell pink, and now wears false oversized eyelashes as well. Making her look a little bit like a tramp.

So here are my observations. I hope that this was not intended to be some sort of misguided mockery of Sierra Madre's traditional Christmas Nativity Scene. The manger scene has religious significance for many in our town. Last evening the Candlelight Walk took place, and many of this community's most devout believers solemnly marched down Baldwin Avenue and to this very site.

I am not certain that having a tarted up pink painted version of our once traditional creche cow in this year's Nativity Scene is quite what those who participated in this walk would have hoped to see upon their arrival.

Perhaps there is an intended message in this somewhere. If so, I am sure that in its proper place this could be discussed and perhaps even appreciated. I understand that. But I don't think Sierra Madre's Christmas Creche in Kersting Court is that place.

It also makes me wonder what has become of this town. We seem to be careening out of control lately.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Can Newly Signed Assembly Bill 52 Rescue One Carter?

Remember where you live.
We have written about the following matter several times in the past, and soon newly signed legislation in Sacramento could possibly bring this issue back to the forefront in the fight to save our at risk hillsides from McMansionization. There is today the possibility that the area we living here now know as One Carter might actually have some considerable religious significance to the Tongva and Gabrielino Indian Tribes. People who, as those with even the most cursory education about the history of our fortunate place in God's Great Design must know, occupied this area long before anyone of our own or other imported ethnic complexities ever arrived upon the scene.

Here is how this original inhabitance is briefly noted on the City of Sierra Madre's website under the moniker "Headline History" (link).

Roughly 500 A.D.: Tongva Indians, the original inhabitants of the Los Angeles Basin, arrive from the Mojave area. Their name has been translated to mean “People of the Earth”. Their main language is a Uto-Aztecan Shoshonean tongue, displaying roots in the Aztec empire and ancient Mexico.

1500: About 25 Tongva villages exist in what will become Los Angeles County. The population is about 300-500 people. 

1769: The first Spanish settlers arrive in the region, encountering an estimated 5,000 Tongva living in 31 villages. 

The issue of culturally inappropriate land usage could end up being an important one in the case of One Carter and the CETT incursion. Which, as we all know, is hardly the first of its kind. In a June 29, 2014 post dealing with issues important to this area titled "One Carter: Sierra Madre's Luxury Home Death Trap?" (link) we noted the following:

The One Carter area is also believed by some to be an ancient burial ground of the Tongva and Gabrielino Indian Tribes. Centuries of indigenous peoples may be buried there, and Representatives of this Tribe attended the One Carter hearings in 2005 to protest development at this site.  

Wikipedia, in their article on the Tongva People (link), discusses just such culturally intolerant land use problems in the Los Angeles Basin. Here is a portion of what they have to say on this matter: 

Land use issues - Controversies have arisen in contemporary California related to land use issues and Native American rights, including those of the Tongva. Since the late twentieth century, both the state and the United States governments have improved respect of indigenous rights and tribal sovereignty. The Tongva have challenged local development plans in the courts to protect and preserve some of their sacred grounds. Given the long indigenous history in the area, not all archaeological sites have been identified.

Which happily brings us to the point of today's post. Apparently in the past laws designed to protect Native American sacred grounds in California lacked the true legal potency needed to get that job done. Protection from the kinds of despoliation we could be soon be seeing at One Carter being a potentially grim example.

Fortunately for those of us in Sierra Madre concerned with preserving and protecting our hillsides, those days could soon be coming to an end. This from the legal services website Lexology (link).

Assembly Bill 52 to expand CEQA’s scope and impose new consultation requirements: On September 25, 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 52, which expands the reach of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by requiring the lead agency on a proposed project to consult with any California Native American tribes affiliated with the geographic area. Further, the legislation creates a broad new category of environmental resources, “tribal cultural resources,” which must be considered under CEQA.

Prior to this legislation, tribal cultural resources were encompassed in CEQA’s categories for “historical” and “archaeological” resources. AB 52 creates a distinct category for tribal cultural resources, requiring a lead agency to not only consider the resource’s scientific and historical value, but also whether it is culturally important to a California Native American tribe. The bill defines tribal cultural resources as “sites, features, places, cultural landscapes, sacred places, and objects with cultural value to a California Native American tribe” that are included in or determined to be eligible for inclusion in the California Register of Historical Resources or the local register of historical resources. The definition also includes resources “determined by the lead agency, in its discretion and supported by substantial evidence, to be significant” pursuant to the criteria for listing in the state register. A “cultural landscape” may be a tribal cultural resource if it meets the above criteria and is “geographically defined in terms of the size and scope of the landscape.”

AB 52 also sets up an expanded consultation process. Beginning July 1, 2015, lead agencies are required to provide notice of proposed projects to any tribe traditionally and culturally affiliated with the geographic area. If, within 30 days, a tribe requests consultation, the consultation process must begin before the lead agency can release a draft EIR, negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration. Consultation with the tribe may include discussion of the type of review necessary, the significance of tribal cultural resources, the significance of the project’s impacts on the tribal cultural resources, and alternatives and mitigation measures recommended by the tribe. The consultation process will be deemed concluded when either (a) the parties agree to mitigation measures or (b) any party concludes, after a good faith effort, that an agreement cannot be reached. Any mitigation measures agreed to by the tribe and lead agency must be recommended for inclusion in the environmental document.

If a tribe does not request consultation, or otherwise assist in identifying mitigation measures during the consultation process, a lead agency may still consider mitigation measures if the agency determines that a project will cause a substantial adverse change to a tribal cultural resource.

I would hope that the City Council will add this to the list of relevant considerations in their continued negotiations with CETT regarding the fate of One Carter and the issue of McMansionization.

Perhaps in a pinch City Hall could consider becoming just such a "lead agency?"

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Video: 91 Year Old Maude Ann Taylor Gives the Speech of the Night at Tuesday Evening's City Council Meeting

Here is a Thanksgiving present for everyone, courtesy of a YouTube poster who goes by the name of Citizen of Sierra Madre. At the end of the City Council's somewhat frustrating discussion about McMansion development at One Carter, and long after public comment had closed, one meeting attendee decided she'd heard just about enough. With the aid of her attendant, 91-year-old Maude Ann Taylor, a resident in town, walked up to the public comment podium and gave what many now believe was the speech of the night. Judging by the effect her talk had on the room that acclaim is well deserved.

Click Here to view the video.

What Maude Ann Taylor articulated in her public comment so well seems to have escaped the City Council. The issue here is not "less bad" development on our hillsides, rather it is something that is exponentially more important. It is also a discussion that we need to be having.

From Caltrans - the people who want to build the 710 Tunnel

(Mod: We'll let the TV news writers do all the talking for this one - link.)

LOS ANGELES ( — One of the busiest streets in all of Los Angeles is apparently suffering from an identity crisis.

For what was reportedly a few days earlier this month, a freeway sign installed above Interstate 710 was displayed with Olympic Boulevard misspelled with an “I” in place of the “Y”, according to The Associated Press. The large green exit sign was covered with a tarp and eventually removed, but not before drivers snapped and tweeted photographs of the mega-typo earlier this month, The Los Angeles Times reported.

Twitter user and Times Assistant Managing Editor Shelby Grad posted an image of the misspelling Nov. 10 before it was covered.

Caltrans spokeswoman Kelly Markham told The Times that the subcontractor will pay for a new sign.

(Mod: Being Caltrans means never having to say you're sorry. I hope everyone has a great Thanksgiving!)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

So Is That It?

I have to admit, they had me going for a little while there. The whole CETT house monster proposal looked like it was going to go down big time. The many residents in attendance lined up to speak and most delivered eloquently stated reasons why Sierra Madre should turn its back on McMansionization. The Mayor effectively grilled Richie McDonald in a decidedly dispassionate and legalistic way, all while the world celebrated Adele Chang looked lost and resigned despite the many important numbers and eclectic house design portrayals in her painstakingly prepared PowerPoint presentation and architectural portfolio.

After much discussion it appeared that this One Carter development project as proposed by CETT was a mere single step away from its quite justified oblivion, and finally, after all of these long and painful years, a City Council was going to stand up to a developer and give the people what it is they really want.

All that needed to happen was just one City Council member to make a movement to deny the project. Just formally vote and see who really loves Sierra Madre as much as they have all said. Make the developer start over from scratch. Which, given their statements earlier in the evening, should have gotten the votes of all four of the eligible Councilmembers. With brio.

So what happened?

Mayor Harabedian suddenly pulled defeat from the happy jaws of victory and asked for a continuance. The City Council even formed a subcommittee so they can help Adele Chang tweak and trim her current two tiered slanty shanty to conform with what our suddenly architectural elected legislative body believes to be an acceptable structure for that downbeat mad pad at 610 Baldwin Court.

All of which means that the people who came down to City Hall, poured their hearts out about what Sierra Madre, as exemplified by the hillsides at One Carter, means to them, received what was at the very best a small incremental victory for their pains. That and the distinct possibility of months, or even years, of additional meetings just like the one last night. With no guarantee that anything good will actually come of it.

It was as if someone had designed the ultimate in passive aggressive public relations ploys, one designed to lure in the populace, allow them to believe that their participation and care means something, and once all of that energy and purpose had been spent, snap everything back to where things were when the meeting first began. All the while telling the assembled how much their words have meant and how truly wonderful it is that they care as much as they do.

So now we'll have another meeting in a few weeks and do it all over again? All so there will be one more chance for CETT to "significantly reduce the second story mass," and then it will be good to go?

And once CETT has done this one last thing we'll have what John Capoccia unhappily referred to as a "less bad" development in the hillsides?

This is now what constitutes a victory for the people of Sierra Madre? A relative few square feet off of a rooftop?

I have no idea of who she was, I didn't catch her name and did not recognize her face. But at the very very end of this discussion, long after public comment had ended, a woman who described herself as a 91 year old lifelong California resident decided she'd heard just about enough and, with the aide of her attendant, walked up to the podium and spoke. And what she said was both profound and to the point.

She said that she'd lived all of her life in the foothills of the San Gabriel Valley, and how in our portion of it there is only one place left where things have yet to be destroyed. That being Sierra Madre. And with an eloquence that will forever escape me told the room full of people hanging on to her every word just why it is so vitally important that such destruction not happen here.

In this one last place.

Compare that to the distinct possibility of "less bad development." Then take a deep breathe, clear your mind of all disappointment and anger, and prepare yourself to fight again.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sierra Madre: Answer The Call

City Hall: Tonight @ 6:30
(Mod: Tonight's City Council meetings is one of those big occasions in town that only happen every once in a long while. I think you'd need to go all the way back to Joe Mosca and his betrayal on the development issue - which led to Measure V and the eventual defeat of the DSP - to get to a moment quite this big. The stakes are incredibly high. Do Sierra Madre's elected representatives sell out to a full-scale McMansion invasion like their faithless equivalents in Arcadia have, or do they hold true to the many things that have made this little village the envy of the San Gabriel Valley? The good news is that the resident's case against the developer's ploy at 610 Baldwin Court has become quite strong over the last few weeks. In addition to the powerful arguments put forward last week by the Preserve Sierra Madre group, others have now spoken out as well. I am including two statements in particular today. The first is taken from an e-mail sent to a resident by former Councilmember Don Watts, who is currently working as a Peace Corps architect overseas. The second from a letter sent to the City Council by an informed Sierra Madre resident named John Hutt.) 

Don WattsMy biggest concern probably has more to do with the issue of available water for the project. Has anyone discussed this as an issue?  How long ago?

In light of the water shortage, has the EIR been re-evaluated or updated regarding water? Seeing that the dropping water table provides a finite supply, and one that is dwindling, will this limited supply last a decade or more? This needs to be studied.

Approving this project could put the entire town in jeopardy. Can the developers guarantee that they can find the necessary additional water resources? The city should be studying this problem with Arcadia. Arcadia's population is growing, and is drawing more and more from known supplies.

Remember paper water?

A comprehensive plan for what is seen as the maximum supply/demand capacity would be important. Knowing that the water table is dropping, the city would, I believe, open itself up to adverse legal action for approving projects that are being carefully so closely watched by both the residents as well as the developers. 

John HuttI write not to urge approval or denial of the above-reference project, but to recommend a methodology for your review. Namely: act reasonably, vote for what you believe is in the best interests of the town, and ignore the legal threats swirling about the project. As detailed below, I believe that the legal consequences feared by some are vastly overblown, and that the approval or denial of the project is well within your legal discretion provided that you ground your decision in the requirements of the General Plan, Hillside Management Zone Ordinance and Settlement Agreement.

The applicant has threatened litigation if you deny the project and its attorney, Mr. McDonald, has claimed that your doing so would be illegal. My impression of Mr. McDonald is that he is a skilled attorney doing his job. He is a zealous advocate for his client, as he should be in our legal system. By design he is not impartial in this matter. You should by all means carefully consider his testimony, but when you do so keep in mind his position and interests.

Doubtless the City Attorney has counseled you on the legal risks involved. I have high regard for the law firm the City employs as legal counsel. While they will act as the City's advocate if this matter does lead to litigation, I trust that in closed session they offer objective advice that you can rely upon. However, it is also important to keep their role in context. Their job is to warn you of legal risks. Weighing those risks against other concerns is your job, not theirs. As I discuss in more detail later, an action taken to avoid legal risk can often have serious other consequences. A business that backs down from all action because of risks highlighted by its attorneys will not long endure. Similarly, for the City to thrive its leaders must act in its best interests even when faced with legal risks.

By discussing the interests of others I don't intend by negative inference to pretend that I don't have an agenda as well. My views on this project are well known. I criticized the early iterations of this project in numerous public hearings. I met with the applicant's representatives, including Mr. McDonald, to offer advice on how to improve the project. The current project is much better, but it is still far from good. We shouldn't confuse progress with the end result. Doing so will only encourage future applicants to make their initial submissions to be as horrible as possible. As detailed below, I believe that the question of whether the project as currently configured meets the minimum requirements for approval is debatable.

Before offering my own legal advice I should give you some idea of my qualifications and experience. After graduating from Cornell undergrad and Michigan for law school, I have worked in California for 18 years as a real estate attorney and developer. I've worked at law firms big and small on a wide range of real estate projects with an aggregate value measured in the billions.

Aside from helping a few friends with Sierra Madre properties, I have made a point of focusing my professional activities outside of town. I have no financial interest in this project. So I speak to you in what I consider to be one of the highest capacities you will hear from: Sierra Madre resident.

I suspect that long after the applicant has liquidated this and all of its other properties in town, and after Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley, PC no longer represents the City, you and I will still be living here dealing with the implications of your vote on this project. So with my background and agenda vetted, I now ask you to consider my opinion as a land use attorney and town resident.

First, let me start with the standard of review. As the Staff Report correctly states, your review of this project is de novo. In other words, you should review the project anew. The question before you is whether the project complies with applicable regulations, most notably the development standards set forth in the General Plan, HMZ and Settlement Agreement. Consider the Planning Commission's approval of the project as simply a recommendation to be weighed along with all other evidence you receive, including the testimony of the applicant and the town's residents.

If your decision were litigated, a judge would employ a different standard of review. Appeal of your approval or denial of the project is available to an aggrieved party by filing a Writ of Mandamus in accordance with California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1094.5. A judge will issue such writ (effectively overturning your decision) only if you abuse your discretion, or in layman's terms (and in a simplification that the City Attorney may wince at, but I believe to be fundamentally correct): only if you act unreasonably.

Before I discuss what constitutes abuse of discretion in more detail, let's pause to contrast the standards of review that you employ regarding the Planning Commission's decision and what a judge would employ regarding yours. Fundamentally, you are reviewing whether the Planning Commission got it right. They felt that the project did the minimum necessary to be approved, albeit just barely. If you feel the project comes even just a bit short, then you can deny it. On the other hand, a judge will overturn your decision only if he or she determines that you acted unreasonably, even if he or she thinks you got the ultimate decision wrong.

So what then constitutes acting unreasonably or an abuse of discretion? There are a number of ways you could be found to have abused your discretion (such as applying the wrong laws, failing to afford due process, or failing to make supportive findings) that I am confident that the City Attorney and staff will ensure that you don't run afoul of.

Of course denying the project because of the applicant's race, approving the project because of an undisclosed financial interest, or intentionally ignoring the General Plan, HMZ and Settlement Agreement could put the City in legal hot water despite the best efforts of those counseling you, but I have no concern that those types of actions will come to pass.

The most likely reason that a judge would determine that you abused your discretion is that your findings were not supported by substantial evidence in the light of the whole record. Code Civ. Proc., § 1094.5, subd. (c); American National Ins. Co. v. Fair Employment & Housing Com. (1982) 32 Cal.3d 603, 607.

Remember that your ultimate decision must be supported by findings, and those findings in turn must be supported by substantial evidence. The court must afford a strong presumption that your findings are correct. Fukuda v City of Angels (1999) 20 Cal.4th 805, 808. Further, “unless the finding, viewed in the light of the entire record, is so lacking in evidentiary support as to render it unreasonable, it may not be set aside." Northern Inyo Hosp. v. Fair Employment Practice Com. (1974) 38 Cal.App.3d 14, 24. Another way of viewing this is whether a reasonable person could come to the same decision based on the evidence presented, not necessarily whether a judge would agree with your decision.

One can imagine a scenario in which a project is so horrible that any reasonable person would deny it, or conversely a project so wonderful that it must be approved. Neither is the case with this project. In my opinion it has pros and cons that reasonable people could weigh differently and on balance vote for or against. There are a number of development standards that require a certain amount of reasonably-applied subjective interpretation, and I believe that approval or denial of the project lies within that reasonable range. I think the Planning Commission acted reasonably in approving the project. I also feel that many of those who spoke or wrote against the project over the course of multiple public hearings came to a reasonable conclusion that the project does not meet the minimum requirements of the applicable development standards.

It is also easy to imagine a case where, despite the intrinsic merits of a project, little useful evidence is provided. An applicant baldly demanding approval adds no real insight or supportive evidence, nor do naysayers fomenting against development in general. Here though there is ample evidence in the record to support findings approving or denying the project. The Staff Report runs 165 pages. The Planning Commission resolution ably lays forth the argument in support of the project. Preserve Sierra Madre's letter does the same for the argument against.

I will be out of town for your meeting so I will be unable to witness it firsthand, but I'm sure the applicant will offer additional evidence in support of the project. Although it hasn't happened yet to date, maybe a resident or two will also speak in favor of the project. Despite the upcoming holiday, I'm quite sure that there will be many speakers opposed to the project. Most of those will offer useful evidence to support their cause, and a fair number will even do so eloquently. In short, there already is substantial evidence in the record to support approval or denial of the project, and more will be offered before the public hearing is closed.

Therefore, I am quite confident that if you come to the public hearing with an open mind, consider all of the testimony and other substantial evidence presented to you in a fair and reasonable manner, and enumerate detailed findings to bridge the analytic gap between the raw evidence and your ultimate decision, that whether you approve or deny the project, your decision will successfully withstand legal challenge.

However, litigation can be time consuming and costly even if you win. Sometimes, but certainly not always, it is wise to settle or take other actions to avoid litigation even if you are confident that you will prevail. The costs and risks of litigation must be balanced against the non-legal implications of avoiding it. In performing this balancing act, you should consider not just the project at hand, but also the implications for future projects. While allowing one poor project to slip by to avoid a court battle may seem worthwhile at first blush, doing so only invites additional poor projects.

A number of years ago the City Council approved Tract Map 54016 and related entitlements (which subdivided the One Carter property) in large measure, if not exclusively, in order to save the City from the costs of litigation. Not only did that poorly configured map produce lots which will be a challenge to develop well (and which is the root cause of a number of the issues confronting the current project), but it also spawned many follow-on lawsuits and earned Sierra Madre a reputation in the development community as a jurisdiction that would knuckle under to threats of litigation. Rather than putting a problem to rest as hoped, approval of the One Carter map opened a can of worms that we are still dealing with today.

Similarly, the question before you now is not simply about one house. Whether you approve or deny this current iteration of this project, houses will be built in the near future on the One Carter and Stonehouse subdivisions. How these houses are designed, reviewed and approved will greatly impact Sierra Madre's future. Will we cower in the face of threatened litigation and allow profit-seeking developers to overrun the hillsides? Will we overcorrect in response to such threats and attempt to thwart even reasonable development?

I hope we chart a middle path. Hold firm to the General Plan and HMZ. Require strict compliance even in the face of saber-rattling attorneys. But continue to be mindful that these properties are privately owned and are approved for residential development. Whether proposed by a long-tenured local or an out-of-town developer seeking to make a quick buck, every hillside project that complies with General Plan and HMZ should be approved.

In summary, now is not the time to succumb to overblown threats and saber- rattling. Set aside unfounded fears of litigation, and vote purely on the merits of the project. Check your gut; look into your heart; cogitate on it. Consider all of the evidence and make your own personal judgment about what is in the best interests of the town.

Does the project “fit” in Sierra Madre as discussed in the General Plan? Is it sensitive to the unique characteristics of the hillside and surrounding context as required by the General Plan, HMZ and Settlement Agreement? Does it look more like the “THIS” rather than “NOT THIS” diagrams in the HMZ?

If you think so, approve the project. If not, deny it.

Thank you very much for your consideration. I hope you all have a blessed Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Argument Against Going Forward With The One Carter ("Stonegate") Project @ 610 Baldwin Court

The beginning of the end?
(Mod: The following document was sent to the City Council a few days back by Preserve Sierra Madre. It details the main arguments against going forward with the Planning Commission's approved - or perhaps coerced - version of the protean project slated for 610 Baldwin Court, possibly the first ever at the nearly decade old so-called "Stonegate" fiasco. Tomorrow evening at 6:30 pm, the City Council will be reviewing this decision of the Planning Commission. It could very well be the most important meeting held by elected municipal representatives here in years. Should the City Council decide that this project can go forward, it would literally open the floodgates for the kinds of suspect foreign capital fueled development that has turned large swathes of Arcadia into the kinds of ugly nouveau-riche oversized rubbish ill-suited not only for our community, but also the other towns in the San Gabriel Valley that are fighting to save themselves. A small portion of this document was published in the Mountain Views News on Saturday. Here is the complete "big boys and girls" version.)  

Dear City Council Members,
The key question that the City Council needs to answer is whether the first house at One Carter/Stonegate described as 610 Baldwin Court is suitable for its location in a very sensitive area of the hillside and suitable for the configuration of this particular lot.  We believe the answer to both questions is a resounding NO.  For that reason, we strongly recommend that the City Council exercise its discretion under the governing documents and vote to either deny this project or remand it back to the Planning Commission to be redesigned in a manner consistent with the governing documents.

The basis for our recommendation comes not from mere opinion but from the applicable documents themselves.  These include the Stonegate Design Guidelines, the Hillside Management Zone ordinance, the General Plan as well as the discretion allowed to the City Council by the Settlement Agreement itself, which states:

“The Hillside Development Permit Applications for the individual homes and related improvements on the One Carter lots shall include discretionary review of the precise layout, design, size, architectural treatment, engineering and similar details of the One Carter Residences under the New HMZ Ordinances….” (Settlement Agreement page 14 paragraph 5.3).  Even in regards to the square footages for each house found in Exhibit I of the Settlement Agreement, it states that those square footages “…are the legally maximum allowable floor areas and do not constitute guarantees of the floor areas that will be authorized in the discretionary review process.” (Settlement Agreement page 15 paragraph 5.3).   

Furthermore, the Settlement Agreement makes clear that “This Settlement Agreement does not constitute an approval of the Stonehouse applications, of the CS Settlement Proposal Plan or of any development application relating to the Stonehouse Property or the One Carter Property.” (Settlement Agreement page 5, paragraph 1,1.1).

Our Municipal Code specifically allows the City Council to review decisions of the Planning Commission, not for the purpose of rubber-stamping the decisions of a Planning Commission, but to make sure, as the elected representatives of the citizens, that the decision is correct and supported by the relevant legal documents. As stated above, those documents give the City Council the discretion to approve only projects that are strictly compatible with those documents including the more subjective policies found in some of the documents.

The discretion required for some of the more subjective policies of these documents is designed to be used, not for the benefit of the developer to exploit, but for the reviewing authority of the City as to where a project is to be built.  In other words, the City Council is tasked with using their discretion to interpret the subjective policies found in the General Plan and elsewhere in a manner that is in the best interest of the residents of Sierra Madre and not in a manner that is in the best interest of the developer.  The Courts will support a city over the developer in terms of who is allowed to interpret the subjective criteria found in a city’s documents.

We also must keep in mind that the Planning Commission did not issue a resounding approval for this project.  They never said this was a good project and we hope you bring another project just like it.  While they ended up voting in favor of this project, it was done only very reluctantly.

One Planning Commissioner said that she might end up approving it, but she would be “holding her nose as she does so.”  Another Planning Commissioner called the design of the house a “Costco Design”.  The adjectives “bland,” “boxy,” “cookie-cutter,” and “designed for flat lands” were repeatedly employed.  There was much discussion of the developer doing just the minimum necessary to win approval.

We can only conclude from this and all the hostile interactions between the Planning Commission and the developer, that while the Planning Commission ultimately approved it, it can be honestly said they barely approved it.  Additionally, one of the Planning Commissioners that was most critical of the project was out of state for the last Planning Commission hearing on the project.  Given their lukewarm approval of the project, it’s possible that had he been in attendance he could have swayed some fellow commissioners and the vote would have had a different result.  Consequently, there remains a certain latitude for which the ultimate authority, the City Council, can reasonably decide one way or another.

We know from the Settlement Agreement that this first house at One Carter must comply with the new HMZ Ordinance and the 1996 General Plan. The Settlement Agreement states that  “… all of the lots … shall comply with the New HMZ Ordinance.” (Settlement Agreement page 14 paragraph 5.1).  While the Settlement Agreement does refer to the exceptions found in Exhibits I and J as well as in regards to lot size and lot configurations, we will focus on the compliance required with all other aspects of the New HMZ Ordinance and the 1996 General Plan.

Before we discuss the specifics of how this first house at One Carter/Stonegate does not comply with the Stonegate Design Guidelines, New Hillside Management Zone Ordinance and the 1996 General Plan, we need to point out what that compliance entails.  First, we understand that the New HMZ Ordinance was drafted by the law firm of our present City Attorney with the specific purpose of making sure that the City has the maximum amount of control and discretion over what is built in our sensitive hillside areas.  It was also written in a manner that is supposed to be enforceable in a Court of Law.

It was probably also written so that the City would not have to “hold its nose” when approving a project.  We don’t take the position that the New HMZ Ordinance was poorly drafted.  We believe it to be an excellent document that fulfills its stated purpose.  Because we believe that, we have to believe that having to “hold our nose” to approve the project would not be due to sloppy drafting or loopholes in the New HMZ Ordinance but, rather, due to a project that does not comply with the very result that the HMZ ordinance was enacted to prevent.

We only need to cite a few provisions of the Hillside Management Ordinance to understand its purpose and intent in preventing bad developments. First, the New HMZ Ordinance states that “All buildings, structures and uses located on any R-H-Zoned lot shall comply with all of the provisions of this title….” (SMMC § 17.52.040 B).  It doesn’t say that an applicant must comply with “some” of the provisions or “most” of the provisions, it mandates that “all” of the provisions be complied with. If there is any doubt about the importance and applicability of the General Plan, the New HMZ Ordinance is clear that to be approved each development  “preserves hillside areas and is consistent with this chapter and with the General Plan.” (SMMC § 17.52.010). It further states that for the findings required to approve a hillside development permit, the reviewing authority shall find that “The proposed development is consistent with and serves to implement the General Plan and specifically, those General Plan goals and policies that pertain to hillside development.” (SMMC § 17.52.090 E 3 a)

To remove all doubt about what the drafters of the New HMZ Ordinance intended to achieve by their efforts to provide the City with maximum control over development in our sensitive hillside areas, under the subtitle “Conflict”, it states that “Should any conflict or ambiguity arise in the application to an R-H-zoned lot of any two or more provisions of this title, the more restrictive application or interpretation should apply.” (SMMC § 17.52.020).

In sum, the HMZ Ordinance as written insures that the reviewing authority, i.e. the City Council, has the maximum amount of authority and discretion to control development in our hillside areas. This ordinance is categorical that an applicant for a hillside permit must comply with all the provisions in the HMZ Ordinance and must comply with all the pertinent provisions in the 1996 General Plan.

In addition to the Hillside Management Zone Ordinance and the General Plan, the city has in place the “Stonegate Design Guidelines.” As stated in this document, “These design guidelines provide further guidance on design components, and will be made part of the Hillside Development Permit approval process.   The design guidelines are to be utilized in addition to the standards and requirements of the Hillside Management Zone and processing requirements of the Settlement Agreement.” (Stonegate Design Guidelines page 1-2)

Finally, let it be said that if setbacks, height limits and such things as floor area ratios were sufficient in determining whether this project should go forward, these requirements could be written on one page.  While some of the policies in the Stonegate Design Guidelines, Hillside Management Zone and General Plan are more general, subjective or discretionary, they are no less important to the end result than height, setbacks and other particulars.  Courts have tended to give cities a great deal of discretion in determining what their city should look like and where development should be allowed.  That discretion is found in the governing documents, and in particular, in the all-important General Plan which is, after all, the “People’s Document.”

The following points show how this first home, despite the changes and improvements that have been made, is still not in compliance with the Stonegate Design Guidelines, the Hillside Management Zone and the General Plan:

Stonegate Design Guidelines Violations

Stonegate Design Guidelines (page 1-1): “The design review guidelines are intended to promote the following: Development which is sensitive to the unique characteristics of the site and surrounding context.

Violation:  The project is big, bland, boxy and appears designed for flat land areas.  There is nothing about the design that echoes or is otherwise sensitive to its unique hillside location. In fact, it appears to be designed simply to achieve near maximum lot coverage of the buildable portion of the lot and has no distinctions of any kind that would suggest a hillside setting was taken into account.

Stonegate Design Guidelines (page 2-1): “The overall design objectives for Stonegate are: Development which minimizes physical and visual impacts to the site and natural surroundings.”

Violation:  The structure has a looming presence so that the design actually maximizes the visual impacts to the site and natural surroundings.  Instead of complementing nature or being harmonious with its natural surroundings, it overwhelms it.

Stonegate Design Guidelines (page 3-4 Section C-1.2): “Diversity of design and individual expression are encouraged, provided that new buildings relate to existing buildings in the community in a way that creates a harmonious collective neighborhood.”

Violation:  This house is disproportionate with that of the existing homes in Sierra Madre, and has has been referred to as a “Costco” design by one of the Planning Commissioners.

Stonegate Design Guidelines (page 3-5 Section D-1.2): “The form, mass and profile of individual residences should consider the character and profile of natural slopes and be designed to limit impacts to the natural terrain remaining within the Stonegate development.”

Violation:  The design ignores the profile of the natural slope.  The southeast corner of the structure jams into the treescape and actually endangers the health of one of the few remaining surviving mature oak trees.  Rather than being in harmony with the land around it, it is just on it in about as unnatural a way as could be imagined.  And because of the odd shape of the lot, it looks like the house is squeezed into an area that is too small for its mass.  Additionally, the grading plan for the project calls for the removal of nearly the entire slope on the north side of the lot and its replacement with two stacked four-foot high retaining walls.  The house would be literally “shoe-horned” into the building pad and lose all harmony with its surrounding as a result.  Rather than a home “designed to limit impacts to the natural terrain,” it would be aggravating the impact in a particularly jarring manner.

Stonegate Design Guidelines (page 3-5 Section D-1.2): “Use of below-grade rooms to reduce building mass ...

Violation:  The subterranean idea meant that a 2-story house would appear to be 1-story and not grow from 2-stories to what is essentially 3-stories.

Stonegate Design Guidelines page 3-6, Section D-1-3): “Buildings should not call undue attention to themselves with monumental entries and/or overwhelming massing.”

Violation:  As you approach the house from Baldwin, the massing is overwhelming as you walk up towards it.  Further, there is limited fenestration on the second-story of the front façade, thereby increasing its appearance of massing.

Stonegate Design Guidelines (page 3-6, Section D-1.6): “Two-story residences are encouraged to have a single-story element to provide transition to the two-story massing.  Two story massing should be located towards the center of buildings with building height and massing stepping down at the edges or avoid the appearance of large, two-story ‘boxes.’

Violation:  While the proposed house does have a small one story element on it’s front façade, it presents a two story massing to its neighbor to the south and, because of its basement feature, a three story massing to its northern neighbor.

Stonegate Design Guidelines (page 3-7, Section D-1.7): “Avoid creating a two-story structure that may directly overlook into neighboring properties.  Privacy of adjacent uses should be considered in the scale and massing of structures.”

Violation:  Again, the lot to the south will have face a two story massing towering over it.  The project should not include a second story over its southerly portion (i.e., the garage).

Stonegate Design Guidelines (page 4-1, Section C): “Individual residential development applications within the Stonegate development shall conform with applicable development policies, standards and provisions as specified in the Sierra Madre General Plan, Municipal Code, Fire Code, Building Code, Settlement Agreement of March 23, 2010 and the Stonegate Design Guidelines.”

Violation:  See below for a discussion of violations of and inconsistencies with the General Plan, the HMZ and other provisions of the Municipal Code.

Hillside Management Zone Violations

HMZ (17.52.010 C): “Facilitate hillside preservation through the development standards and guidelines set forth in this chapter; to direct and encourage development that is sensitive to the unique characteristics of the hillside areas in the city, which include, but shall not be limited to slopes, land forms, vegetation and scenic quality; accordingly, innovation in the design of buildings and structures is encouraged so long as the result preserves hillside areas and is consistent with this chapter and with the General Plan.

Violation:  The house obscures and ignores the natural environment, rather than being sensitive to its unique characteristics.  For example, branches from the venerable oak just behind the proposed structure encroach into the story poles erected to demonstrate the massing of this project.  Rather than design around this protected tree, the applicant decided to crowd it with a two story mass that will tower over the neighboring lot to the south.  Additionally, the structure’s design is, in words used by the Planning Commission, bland, boxy and “cookie-cutter” rather than innovative.

HMZ (17.52.010 E): “Ensure that all hillside development is designed to fit the existing land form.”

Violation:  The house is designed for flat land, ignoring the hillside land form.  For example, it includes a large basement.  This type of feature could be employed in a hillside setting to reduce the appearance of bulk and massing.  Imagine a bi-level home that closely follows hillside contours.  Instead this project includes a basement with one wall fully visible to the uphill side.  So what technically counts as a two-story house presents a three-story massing to its northern neighbor.  By working opposite the slope of the hillside, this project increases its appearance of bulk and massing, and minimizes its fit with the exiting land form.  This placement of the basement also requires extensive excavation rather than following the existing slope of the land.

HMZ (17.52.010 F): “Preserve significant natural features of hillside areas, including swales, canyons, knolls, ridgelines, and rock outcrops.  Development may necessarily affect natural features; therefore, a major design criterion for all hillside development shall be the minimization of impacts on such natural features.”

Violation: Unfortunately, a major design criterion for this project appears to be to encroach on the nearly protected oak as much as possible.  The paired retaining walls and basement excavation also speak to its disregard for natural features.

HMZ (17.52.120 A 2): “Buildings and structures on R-H-zoned lots shall be designed to minimize their adverse visual impacts.  The siting, shape, materials and colors of all such buildings and structures shall be designed and maintained so as to blend with the natural landscape.”

Violation: The proposed project’s lot is large, but much of its area is steeply sloped.  Only a small portion of the lot was graded into a flat, buildable pad.  The structure exploits this small pad with a big, boxy two-story mass.  This massing sticks out rather than blends in.  It includes no discernable local or natural materials.  In fact, it was purposely designed to match Santa Barbara in style, not Sierra Madre.  At the Planning Commission’s request, the applicant did change the project’s color to a muted beige, but its siting, shape and materials continue to be inconsistent with this HMZ provision.

HMZ (17.52.090 E 3): “Findings Required: In approving an administrative hillside development permit or a hillside development permit, the reviewing authority shall make all of the following findings:

“The proposed development is consistent with and serves to implement the general plan and specifically, those general plan goals and polices that pertain to hillside development;”
Violation: See below for a discussion of the project’s numerous inconsistencies with the General Plan.

 “The proposed development is consistent with the purposes of this chapter;”

Violation: As discussed above, this project is inconsistent with many of the purposes of the HMZ.  It is simply impossible to construe this house as consistent with the purposes of this chapter which purposes are clearly to preserve the feel of the natural setting.

The proposed development complies with the standards set forth in this chapter, including Section 17.52.120 (Design and Development Standards for Uses Requiring Hillside Development Permits) and Section 17.52.160 (Architectural and Site Design Standards).

Violation: In addition to the HMZ inconstancies discussed above, the project violates numerous HMZ standards.  For example, the downhill second-story massing will obstruct its southern neighbor’s views in contravention of Section 17.52.160 A 3 (“Buildings and structures shall be oriented to preserve significant views from neighboring properties to the greatest extent feasible.”).  As discussed above, the project sticks out rather than blends in as required by Section 17.52.160 B 3 (“The form, mass and profile of buildings, structures and architectural features shall be designed to blend with the natural terrain and to preserve the character and profile of natural slopes.”).  Finally, the project’s imposing massing, failure to properly locate two-story sections, and ignorance of its land form result in it more closely resembling the “NOT THIS” rather than the “THIS” illustrations in the HMZ.  See especially Figures 8 & 9.

CUP Violations

The project also requires a conditional use permit.  In accordance with Sierra Madre Municipal Code Section 17.60.040, before any conditional use permit is granted, the application shall show, to the reasonable satisfaction of the body hearing such matter, the existence of certain facts. Below we discuss the project’s inconsistency with the noted findings:

A.  That the site for the proposed use is adequate in size, shape, and topography;

Violation:  While the lot in question is large, it is oddly shaped, has only a small buildable pad, and contains a large area covered by steep slopes.  In fact, according to the project’s survey map, over 57% the lot is comprised of Slope Category 4 area.  Slope Category 4 is defined by Section 17.52.110 as having a natural slope of over 25%.  Section 17.52.120 A 8 prohibits building in this area (“… no buildings or structures shall be located on any portion of an R-H-zoned lot in Slope Category 4.”).  This leaves only 5,520 square feet of lot with a slope of less than 25%, i.e., Slope Categories 1, 2 & 3 combined.

How does this compare to the size of the proposed structure and what is allowed under the zoning code?  Allowed floor area is a function of lot size.  For this lot the New HMZ would allow just over 3,500 square feet (SMMC § 17.52.120 A 5), but the Settlement Agreement allows 4,153 square feet (this is the amount that would be allowed if flatland R-1 standards were applied to the lot, see SMMC § 17.20.125).  In either case, the project’s 3,125 square feet complies.

On the other hand, if just the buildable section of the lot were considered (i.e., Slope Categories 1, 2 & 3 combined, but not Slope Category 4), the maximum floor area allowed would be only 1,800 square feet under the HMZ standards or only 2,100 square feet under R-1 standards.  Far smaller than the proposed 3,125 square feet.

Keep in mind that the house includes a 675 square foot basement that is not included in the calculated floor area.  While this is allowed under the HMZ and would make sense if it were employed in a manner to minimize bulk and massing, as discussed above, the project’s design does just the opposite.  So we are faced with a proposed structure with a functional size of 3,800 square feet on a lot with a buildable portion that should withstand only 1,800 to 2,100 square feet according to Sierra Madre development standards.

We do not provide these calculations to suggest that the project’s floor area is a prima facie violation of the applicable floor area limits.  Rather they lend some quantification of to the many statements in this letter and by others in multiple public hearings that the proposed structure is too big for its lot.

C.  That the proposed use will not unreasonably interfere with the use, possession and enjoyment of surrounding and adjacent properties;

Violation:  As discussed above, the proposed house is out of scale with Sierra Madre relative to the size, slope and configuration of its lot.  It will tower over its southern neighbor and present a three-story massing to its northern neighbor.

E.  That the use, if permitted, will, as to location and operation, be consistent with the objectives of the general plan; and

Violation:  See below for a discussion of inconsistencies with the General Plan.

F.  That the public interest, convenience, and necessity require that use be permitted at the location requested.

Violation:  While the General Plan, HMZ and Settlement Agreement all contemplate residential use on the lot in question, nothing requires that a structure this large, this bland and this devoid of connection to its unique surroundings be permitted here.

1996 General Plan Violations

General Plan (Land Use Issues, page 17 #6): “Residential neighborhoods are varied throughout the City regarding lot sizes, housing sizes, age and style of structures.  There is no one characteristic Sierra Madre neighborhood.  However, residents are able to identify structures which ‘fit’ in Sierra Madre versus those which do not.

Violation: The proposed house does not fit in due to its massing, bland design and failure to address its surroundings.  The house is too large for its building pad.  The height of the structure is disproportionate to the size of the buildable area of the lot.  Its design seems torn from a flat land tract home sample book rather than having been custom tailored to its unique hillside setting.

True to this General Plan provision, by speaking against this proposed structure at numerous Planning Commission and City Council meetings, the residents of Sierra Madre have identified it as an ill fit.  To our memory, not one resident has spoken in favor of the project.

Why do Sierra Madre residents overwhelmingly find that the proposed house does not fit?  Because as discussed above, where the zoning code’s floor area calculations see a 3,125 square foot house on a lot of over 13,000 square feet, the project will look and feel like a 3,800 square foot structure on a 5,520 square feet lot.  Or to the layman’s eye, nearly twice as big as it should be.

General Plan (Overview of Land Use Policy, page 18 paragraph 1): “The fundamental principle behind the land use policy of the General Plan is to maintain the existing low density, village character of Sierra Madre in the same urban development pattern that exists today … Hillside areas should be preserved either in their natural state or with very low density residential development which is designed to be sensitive to the environmental nature of the foothills.”

Violation: The proposed house does not maintain the village character that exists today.  This house is an example of what can be found in many tracts in Glendale and Burbank.  This house does not reflect the hillside environment.

General Plan (Summary of Land Use Goals, page 18 #2): “Preserve and enhance the diversity in character of residential neighborhoods ensuring that new development is compatible in its design with older established development in stable neighborhoods without attempting to replicate or mass produce a style of development.

Violation:  This house does not preserve or enhance the character of the surrounding neighborhoods.  Its design is neither unique, innovative nor compatible with nearby established neighborhoods.  This is born out by how it was described by the Planning Commission.

General Plan (Residential Land Use Designations, page 21, Objective L6): “Ensure that the massing and scale of new infill construction, additions and alterations to new structures be consistent with that of the existing block.”

Violation:  The massing and scale of this house are not consistent with that of the existing development in Sierra Madre.  If all of the One Carter lots are allowed to be developed at this scale, the tract will not resemble any area of town.

General Plan (page 24, Objective L12): “Facilitate hillside preservation through development standards and guidelines which provide direction and encourage development sensitive to the unique characteristics found in the hillside areas in the city."

Violation:  The form, mass and profile of this residence does not consider the character and profile of the land it is on, nor does it limit impacts to the natural terrain remaining within Stonegate/One Carter.  In fact, some of the very few surviving trees are considered to be interferences.  The form, mass and profile of this building does not blend with the natural terrain.  It dominates the area and diminishes the view of the few surviving mature trees on the hillside to the east.

General Plan (page 24, Objective L12.1): “Determine that development density of sites based on a calculation that uses slope as a primary factor, that is, the steeper the slop the more restrictive the density.”

Violation: We won’t rehash this in detail again. As discussed above, more than half the lot is so steep as to be unbuildable, yet rather than compensate by reducing the size of the proposed house, it is designed as if it were sited on a flat lot of equal size.

General Plan (page 25, Objective L14): “Protect the views to and from hillside areas in order to maintain the image and identity of the City as a village of the foothills.”

Violation:  This house does not maintain the image and identity of the City as a village in the foothills.  It obstructs the views of its southerly neighbor.

General Plan (page 25, Objective L14.1): “Require the use of natural materials and earth tone colors for all structures to blend with the natural landscape and natural chaparral vegetative growth.”

Violation:  While the project is colored in earth tones at the Planning Commission’s request, it does not employ natural materials nor blend in with the natural landscape..

General Plan (page 25 L14.2): “Require that all development be designed to reflect the contours of the existing land form using techniques such as split pads, detaching secondary structures (such as garages), avoiding the use of excessive cantilevers.”

Violation:  As discussed above in more detail, this house does not reflect the contours of the existing land forms.  It should follow the line of the hillside.

General Plan (page 25, Objective L14.3): “Require that significant features of the natural topography be preserved to the maximum extent possible, including swales, canyons, knolls, ridge lines, and rock outcrops.”

Violation:  See discussion above.

In conclusion, and based upon the above violations of the Stonegate Design Guidelines, the Hillside Management Ordinance, CUP and the 1996 General Plan, the City Council is urged to deny this first house located at 610 Baldwin Court. At the very least, the City Council should remand this project back to the Planning Commission to be redesigned in a manner consistent with these governing documents.

All of the policies and provisions in place in the relevant documents were drafted for this very purpose – to prevent a City from losing control over decisions about its land use policies.  These documents were literally designed to give the City the authority to use their discretion to insure that no one has to “hold their nose” in order to approve any project in Sierra Madre and particularly not one located in our hillside zone.

We believe, and hope you believe as well, that the standard for building homes in Sierra Madre is higher than that. In short, we have to ask ourselves how we could possibly end up with a result that the Settlement Agreement, the Stonegate Design Guidelines, the Hillside Management Zone Ordinance and the 1996 General Plan were trying to prevent.

What good are these documents if we allow a developer to interpret them and exploit them in a manner that maximizes their profit and yet is adverse to the interests of the community that the documents were designed to protect?

We also ask that you imagine that if this one home doesn’t fit on its lot, what will it look like to have twenty more similar ones built in that same area. It will permanently alter the character of our town by leaving us with a certain geographical area of our town that is set apart and different from the surrounding neighborhood.

Try to imagine another two-story house (which with a partially exposed basement will look like a three-story structure) of over 3,000 square feet rising within a few feet of this one. Try to imagine 20 plus more, on both sides of the street marching up the hillside – a wall of disproportionately tall, bland houses overwhelming the “environmentally sensitive nature of the hillsides.”

As goes this one, the others will surely follow.

One final point needs to be made. Someone reading the record of this project could conclude that the developer made many concessions to arrive at the present design.  But the credit for those "concessions" lies not with a recalcitrant developer, but with a Planning Commission that moved this  from the horrible project that was first submitted to one that is now merely a bad project.  We strongly believe that, at the very least, Sierra Madre deserves a good project and we believe that the governing documents dictate that result.

We appreciate your consideration of this letter and we trust that each of you will do your best to represent the residents of Sierra Madre by making a decision that will be in the best interests of our community.

Thank you.