Residents cite previous unsold developments, fragile ecology of the area
Over 100 years ago, the original developers of Montecito Heights planned to put a hotel and a restaurant on the flat top of the hill. It never happened. But “Flat Top” has been eyed by developers ever since.
Montecito Heights, meanwhile, has become a haven for an eclectic group of residents who value living close to the big city and even closer to nature. More than 50 of those residents gathered Thursday evening to let the latest developer know just what they thought of his plan to put 36 pricey houses on Flat Top.
Most of Flat Top is owned by the Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The radio tower, a dominant feature on the landscape, was once used to transmit the Gospel according to famous evangelist Sister Aimee Semple McPherson to homes across Los Angeles.
The church recently brought in Vince Daly of the Daly Group, specialists in real estate development, to see what can be done with the property. The plan that has emerged is to develop about 40 acres with 36 houses. Daly says that the developers will “try to conform to existing rules.” That means that structures cannot be placed on ridge lines and that individual lots cannot be smaller that 20,000 square-feet each.
The plan, as currently envisioned, is to place the houses all the way to the front of the lots. The remaining 90%, plus or minus, of the lots on the slopes of the hill, would remain open space.
Daly has met twice now with the Montecito Heights Improvement Association. He has gotten an earful as to what area residents think of the plan.
Open space in the area is more than a nice luxury for nature enthusiasts who live in the area, say local residents. It provides corridors for a variety of wildlife. It is an endangered link in a necklace of open spaces that could, in the not too distant future, allow hikers, bicyclists, equestrians and wildlife continuous passage from Griffith Park, along the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Seco, through Debs Park and up the Arroyo Seco to the Angeles National Forest.
At the November Montecito Heights Improvement Association meeting, local City Councilmember Ed Reyes’ Chief of Staff Jose Gardea indicated that the council office would not support any development that threatened these linkages.
At that November meeting with Daly, there was some confusion as to what was meant by “open space.” The slopes behind the houses would not be public open space; they would be, in essence, homeowners’ backyards.
Daly told residents at this month’s meeting that a deed restriction or conservation easement could be imposed that would require keeping the space open. Maintenance is a thorny issue. Daly suggested that there could be a homeowners’ association to cover maintenance. Or responsibility could be turned over to an open space agency which could put in trails and allow access.
Not everyone in attendance was willing to trust the developer with maintenance matters.
“The church has done ‘weed abatement’ for years,” said landscape designer Katharine Parra, “and has destroyed native vegetation and wildflowers.”
Parra said that if she had to “suffer through these ugly houses,” she wanted to see management for wildlife protection and native vegetation, not gutting.
Construction on Flat Top could be disruptive for residents the length of the community. The construction site is accessed via what is currently a dirt road. The only vaguely realistic way to and from that road would be via Montecito Drive—which raises concerns about noise, pollution and a street too narrow for trucks, cars, pedestrians and baby strollers to coexist safely.
Roy Payan, President of the Montecito Heights Improvement Association, said that he had measured the road at Flat Top and found it to vary in width from 15 to 19 feet, whereas 32 feet would be required. It appears that the road would have to be widened, a conflict with the lots still having to be 20,000 square-feet.
The hillside under the proposed project is subject to erosion.
“We get landslides every time it rains,” said one resident who lives directly below the site.”
Daly said that in order to develop the site, the hillside would have to be made even stronger than it is now.”
His statement was met with skepticism, and Payan pointed out that the association had gotten a berm put in because of susceptibility to erosion.
There are fears that added infrastructure could make it easier for yet more development in the future.
There are empty houses in Montecito Heights now. Payan says that there are 45 vacant foreclosed homes in the community at present. The Church of the Foursquare Gospel is banking on the economy improving during the period of at least three years that it will take to get a project of this scale underway.
Many of the Montecito Heights residents are quick to point out that, if they get testy over proposed development, it’s an irritability born out of experience.
Payan ran Daly through a litany of housing boom developments. A Montecito Drive development was originally supposed to be 12 houses at $1.3 million each. It ended up being an enormous wall plus 8 houses with no yards because of the slope. Not one sold, and they became Section 8 housing. On Berenice Place, the crew for a nine house development ruined the street. The developer repaired only the portion of the street in front of the development. The houses sat empty for four years while they were vandalized and stripped of wiring.
“Developers come here all the time and say ‘we’re going to build these beautiful homes’,” said Payan. “They don’t sell.”
The Flat Top project currently exists in concept form. No paperwork has been filed with the City at this point.
Payan asked Daly to take a message back to the church.
“Because of the geography of this area, only about 10% of it is buildable,” said Payan. “Wouldn’t it behoove the church to sell it to an agency and buy a nice piece of property out near Thousand Oaks where they can build more than 40 homes?”
Meanwhile, residents are gearing up for what could end up being a protracted struggle.