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Noise Among Neighbors

Aplan to build an eldercare facility in a Woodland Hills neighborhood has been approved, but the strife it has caused between neighbors may continue. On March 23, the South Valley Planning Commission essentially approved the facility to be built at 6221 N. Fallbrook Ave. at the intersection with Erwin Street by rejecting an attempt by homeowners to reverse the city of Los Angeles’ approval of the project earlier this year. If the homeowners continue to fight the project in court, it will be the second legal battle over the eldercare project, which was first presented around 2011. Two neighborhood groups are the backdrop for the conflict. The Walnut Acres Neighborhood Association, a voluntary association that does not require membership or dues, supports the project. Preserve Walnut Acres is a coalition of residents that formed last year to oppose the project. The clash spilled over into the Warner Center News in February with accusations and defenses written between former L.A. Councilman Dennis Zine, who writes for the paper and was involved as a councilman in the proposal approved by the city in 2012, and others involved in the case. Publisher Kathleen Sterling eventually got into the fray to defend the paper for publishing Zine’s comments. Reversals At the center of the debate is the facility, planned by the property’s owners, John Simmers and Thomas Simmers, and the developers, Community MultiHousing Inc. and Chandler Pratt & Partners of Burbank. When first presented, the assisted living and memory care center was planned with 76 beds in 60 patient rooms and to be 50,300 square feet. “When first proposed, it was two stories, and quite large, with 60 rooms,” said Mark Shipow, an attorney who represents the Walnut Acres Neighborhood Association regarding the project. While the 1.5-acre property is not zoned for an eldercare facility, it fell under the purview of an overlay ordinance that allows such facilities to be built there under certain conditions. Residents within the Walnut Acres neighborhood and the WANA organization were united in their opposition to the project, arguing that it was too large. However, Fallbrook Avenue is a four-lane thoroughfare with gas stations, a medical marijuana dispensary and stores such as Home Goods and CVS nearby. The project was approved by the Los Angeles City Council in 2012. In response, WANA and four residents sued the city, the Simmers and the developer in 2012. The Court of Appeal overturned the city’s approval in 2015. “We had tried to have negotiations with the developer on reducing the size and they were not interested,” Shipow said. “Once it became final, the developer became more interested in discussing a resolution.” Even though WANA and the homeowners won, they negotiated a settlement with the developer and property owners that shrunk the facility to a one-story, 33,500-square-foot operation with 60 beds and 50 guest rooms. They also agreed to a money settlement that set aside compensation of roughly $427,500 for people who were going to be adversely impacted should the facility be built, plus $17,500 for Shipow’s legal fees. “If you live next door to a dementia facility, there will be impacts, such as parking and noise; it’s a commercial operation on property you assumed was going to be a house,” Shipow said. In turn, the homeowners and WANA had to agree to support the project, send letters supporting it to the city of Los Angeles and not oppose it, according to the settlement agreements. According to Shipow, WANA emailed and mailed members about the settlements and held a meeting in November with the developer asking members to vote on the project. Members subsequently mailed in their votes and the majority supported the revised facility, according to Shipow. In January, the city’s Zoning Administrator approved the revised project. Conflict Preserve Walnut Acres formed later last year to oppose the project. Chris Moser of Woodland Hills filed an appeal in January with a handful of other residents. The document alleges WANA reversed its opposition to the project because of a payoff, initiated secret actions and excluded information about the money settlement. It also alleged errors made by the zoning administrator in the approval, amid other issues with the project. The two sides clashed at the commission hearing. In response to commissioners’ questions, homeowners supporting the project said they didn’t receive any money, and that anyone could ask to be reimbursed from an independent third party that will distribute the money. But opponents maintained their argument with the project itself. “People here fighting are not fighting because of the money,” said Diane Bocwoldt. Todd Pratt, with Chandler & Pratt, told the commission that it had numerous meetings with WANA and its members. “We’re in similar places today as two years ago,” he said. The money settlement element raised the eyebrows of some commissioners. Commissioner Raymond Bishop said he felt the project was suitable for the location and supported it, but not the settlement, and supported the appeal. “I’m not comfortable with this idea that people were paid off,” Bishop said. “That’s what it looks like.” Moser attended the hearing, and said he opposed the facility because of its potential impacts on the character of the neighborhood. “The association flip-flopped on this for no apparent reason,” he said. “People were vehemently opposed, and then supported it.” Andrew Pennington, planning director for L.A. Councilman Bob Blumenfield, read a letter from the politician at the hearing, which hinted that both sides were considering legal action depending on the commission’s decision. Shipow had not heard of any action as of March 28.

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