Appellate Court Orders City of LA to Redo Environmental Review of Modification to Hollywoodland's Historic Granite Walls

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Committee to Save the Hollywoodland Specific Plan and Hollywood Heritage v. City of Los Angeles (R.J. Cutler) Case: Case Number B197018, Court of Appeal 2nd District, Division 7

The Court of Appeal reversed a lower court ruling that upheld the City's approval of a homeowner putting a private fence on a designated Los Angeles cultural monument known as Hollywoodland's Historic Granite Walls and Staircases (Committee to Save the Hollywoodland Specific Plan and Hollywood Heritage v. City of Los Angeles (R.J. Cutler), Case Number B197018, Court of Appeal 2nd District, Division 7). Hollywood Heritage and a local organization named the Committee to Save the Hollywoodland Specific Plan challenged the City of Los Angeles' approval of the fence on a portion of the historic granite walls.

Hollywoodland is directly below the iconic "Hollywood" sign, which has been in the news because of plans to build houses nearby. The "Hollywood" sign originally said "Hollywoodland" when it was erected in the 1920's and it served as a marker over the Hollywoodland subdivision. The Hollywood sign is a designated City of Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument, as are Hollywoodland's Historic Granite Walls.

This ruling affirms the California Environmental Quality Act's protections for all of designated historic cultural monuments. Attorney Douglas Carstens with the Santa Monica based law firm Chatten-Brown & Carstens which represented the successful plaintiffs, said, "The Court determined the City of Los Angeles violated the California Environmental Quality Act. Before allowing a private party to modify a Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument such as the Granite Walls of Hollywoodland, the City must review the impacts of such action. This decision stands as a reminder that everyone has an interest in Los Angeles' treasured Historic Cultural Monuments and those resources must be protected."

Fran Offenhauser of Hollywood Heritage said, "Hollywood Heritage has pursued this lawsuit and others like it because the historic preservation community has seen a recent pattern of the City of Los Angeles engaging in serious backsliding when it comes to complying with CEQA and the City's own historic preservation ordinances. People worked long and hard to get these historic protections, and won't sit idly by while they lose their hardfought and hardwon protections. The Court has correctly ordered the City to go back and get it right. A decision like this reminds us that it is worth fighting to protect the heritage of our neighborhoods. While the issue being litigated was a flimsy wooden fence, it took on a wide significance as a test of Los Angeles' protections of its historic monuments."

Crosby Doe, a member of the Committee to Save the Hollywoodland Specific Plan, stated, "The Court's decision is one step toward recognizing the fact that historic preservation matters in this City and can't just be ignored. Everyone should respect the historic monuments that the City has created.

"Because the approval of the fence must be set aside, we will have an opportunity to make it clear to the City that there are better, safer, and more environmentally sensitive ways to forward the interests of property owners who are seeking privacy and address safety issues caused by steep drop-offs on winding streets, without compromising the walls and views that are a part of Hollywoodland's heritage and charm."

Ms. Offenhauser, an architect, also noted that the Court's statement that, "the City admitted that the existing eight-inch curb and metal K-rail guardrail were inadequate to prevent cars from driving over the curb or pedestrians from falling into the yard" would be a magnet for litigation against the City and that the City's position implied that a flimsy private fence would be superior protection than a well-engineered, Public Works designed vehicle barrier.

Background:

This action sought to compel the City of Los Angeles ("City") to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA"), the City's Municipal Code, and the provisions of the Hollywoodland Specific Plan ("Specific Plan") that were designed to protect the unique architectural and historical heritage of an area of Hollywood known as Hollywoodland. Hollywoodland is a small residential community just below the iconic "Hollywood" sign. Many of the streets of Hollywoodland were built into the Hollywood Hills in the 1920's using the skilled labor of Italian stone masons, who built granite walls as a support for the streets. These walls are now part of a City historic monument collectively known as Hollywoodland's Historic Granite Walls and Interconnecting Stairs, which is designated Historic-Cultural Monument No. 535. These shared scenic features of unusual beauty inspired an extraordinary citizen-led effort between 1990 and 1992 to convince the City to protect the granite walls through both an Historic Cultural Monument designation and adoption of the Hollywoodland Specific Plan ("Specific Plan").

Unfortunately, the integrity of the Hollywoodland Specific Plan's protection of the unique granite walls for the community of Hollywoodland was endangered by the City's approval of an exception to the Specific Plan in order to allow a privately owned, illegally-constructed fence to remain attached to a 168 foot portion of one of the protected historic granite walls along the property owned by Real Party in Interest Robert Cutler, in violation of the Specific Plan.

The Specific Plan expressly prohibits walls or fences from being attached to these historic granite walls, when the walls are located within the public right of way, or the fence is within three feet of the front lot line of a property. Nevertheless, the City approved an exception for just such a fence within three feet of the property line. The fence would necessarily be attached to the historic granite wall, but the City failed to approve a Specific Plan exception for such an attachment. The fence would be incompatible with the granite composition of the historic walls, impair views of travellers on Durand Drive, and be inconsistent with the Old World European character of the Hollywoodland area, which the Specific Plan was specifically intended to protect.

The City violated the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA)" because it relied upon a categorical exemption for minor variances to avoid environmental review prior to approving an exception to the Hollywoodland Specific Plan to allow the fence to remain. The use of such an exemption is not proper because the project may have significant impacts on Historic-Cultural Monument 535 and the Old World European character of the entire Hollywoodland area, which the Hollywoodland Specific Plan was purposefully designed to protect.

For the Court's opinion, go to the following web site:
http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/opinions.cgi?Courts=B

Contacts:
Attorney Douglas P. Carstens, Chatten-Brown and Carstens, 310-314-8040 x 2
Crosby Doe, Committee to Save the Hollywoodland Specific Plan, 310-275-2222
Fran Offenhauser, Hollywood Heritage, 310-659-6600

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Douglas Carstens

Crosby Doe
Committee to Save the Hollywoodland Specific Plan
310-275-2222
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