The mansions of Bel Air once deemed extravagant can seem positively modest today. Rising prices and a robust economy have speculators rushing to develop the next generation of posh estates, some of which rival the size of shopping centers.
That’s good for builders, real estate agents and the handful of buyers able to afford such massive homes, but the trend has enraged many nearby residents – some of whom are seeking to block new projects in court – and intensified a feud within L.A.’s community of land-use attorneys.
“Conflicts are a material part to all lawyers regardless of the practice area, but it’s specifically a larger issue when you’re a land-use attorney,” said Andrew Kirsh, real estate practice chair at Century City law firm Sklar Kirsh. “If you are a developer’s counsel, a developer is not going to want you to represent a homeowners association against other developers.”
Such is true for land-use lawyer Edgar Khalatian, partner in the downtown L.A. office of Mayer Brown. Santa Monica developer Ty Cueva hired Khalatian after the newly formed Bel Air Homeowners Alliance denounced the builder’s plans to construct a 40,000-square-foot mansion on Somma Way.
The alliance – headed by Fred Rosen, former chief executive of Ticketmaster – claims the project, which includes indoor and outdoor pools, among other amenities, will bring a slew of safety hazards. The dispute, which landed in Los Angeles Superior Court late last year, is set for a hearing early next week to determine a trial date.
Plans for Cueva’s lavish estate are in many ways not unlike other large home sites in Bel Air and other hillside communities where the super-rich reside.
But Rosen is not impressed. In May, he formed the alliance to fight homebuilders and urge the city of Los Angeles to impose stricter regulations. He fears construction trucks weaving throughout the windy Bel Air roads will create a major safety hazard for residents.
“We’re not anti-development, because people should be able to build what they want. But there should be more restrictions,” he said. “Here’s the problem: You have 1980 regulations for 2014 and 2015 technology and everything’s out of whack.”
Rosen’s group is using the California Environmental Quality Act as the core of its opposition to Cueva’s project. It’s a law that has been roundly criticized by business groups for prompting frivolous litigation and stalling development.
And so begins the split among land-use attorneys.
“CEQA is an environmental statute, intended to ensure the public and decision-makers have full knowledge of the environmental impacts of a certain project,” said Khalatian, Cueva’s lawyer. “It’s not intended to kill the development of a single-family house and, in this case, I believe CEQA is being misused.”
Indeed, the law is most actively employed when it comes to large commercial projects.
Pasadena land-use lawyer Robert P. Silverstein is perhaps among the best known – or notorious, depending on which side one is on – of the attorneys using CEQA to oppose projects throughout Los Angeles. He’s had a string of successes delaying or stopping developments in Hollywood, including the Millennium Towers proposed atop a disputed earthquake fault line.
“This canard that CEQA is misused to stop good development is just a lie,” Silverstein said. “By nobody’s definition is building skyscrapers on top of an earthquake fault good development.”
The community of land-use attorneys in Los Angeles who fight development is relatively small compared with those representing developers.
“To do this type of work requires a healthy dose of idealism and willingness to be David against Goliath,” Silverstein said. “It is a risky business model that first and foremost requires a philosophy of wanting to protect the little guy.”
Not all land-use attorneys find such stark divides.
Benjamin Reznik, a partner at Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell, is among the few willing to fight on both sides of the issue.
In Bel Air, for instance, Reznik represents an angry resident opposing a hillside mansion and has also been retained by celebrity developer Mohamed Hadid to fight a separate battle in the same neighborhood.
“Some of the projects I’ve seen are more aggressive, more bold certainly compared to prior years and prior boom times,” Reznik said. “For me, it’s not an ideological issue. Not all proposals are equal in terms of potential impacts on the neighbors.”
Rosen began rallying his neighbors when plans for a more than 70,000-square-foot estate on Airole Way were unveiled. The site is not far from Loma Vista Drive in Beverly Hills, where two Los Angeles Police Department officers were killed in separate collisions with trucks early last year.
Though the alliance did not oppose that project, now under construction, Rosen argued massive residences like it pose similar risks for out-of-control construction vehicles. He formed the alliance with the goal of persuading the city to think twice before approving such large projects.
“Building and Safety should be called Building and Hauling. Safety is not a consideration,’” he said. “They’re more interested in protecting developers than residents.”
Rosen, chief executive of the alliance, is now alongside four other well-to-do Bel Air residents on the organization’s board.
Hayward D. Fisk, former vice president at Computer Sciences Corp., is its chairman; treasurer is Daniel Love, owner of real estate development company Perranporths; and retired attorney Jamie Meyer is secretary. The final board member is Marcia Hobbs, president and publisher of the Beverly Hills Courier, which has run numerous stories supporting the alliance.
Rather than mobilizing to oppose a single project, critics claim the alliance was formed to challenge virtually all new construction in Bel Air. If so, there are plenty of potential targets.
As of Dec. 12, 15 new houses were under construction in Bel Air, with 15 city-approved routes for trucks to haul soil and building materials in and out of the neighborhood, according to Noah Muhlstein, planning deputy in Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz’s office. So far, the alliance has denounced four haul routes, claiming they bring extreme safety hazards to the hillside community.
Cueva’s proposed mansion on Somma is one of the projects contested by the alliance and the first to have the dispute land in court.
The organization funds its battles with contributions from about 100 members, Rosen said, each paying $5,000 to join the effort. Board members continue to host supporter events each month to entice more disgruntled neighbors to toss some cash their way.
Stacey Brenner, a land-use and development consultant not involved in the Somma dispute, said other homeowner groups use settlement money from other disputes to fund future litigation.
“In the mediation process, one of the terms is to have all the attorney’s fees paid upfront before litigation,” she said. “That sends a red flag because they could use that money to appeal another project and/or toward a future lawsuit.”
Still, it’s unclear whether the alliance will bring more disputes to court.
“Our aggression is a result of the disrespect this community has been shown by various city agencies,” Rosen said. “This is just the beginning. Time will tell how things evolve, but I think it’s important to know we took this action.”