Ending City Planning Snafu in Rustic Canyon
Almost 20 years of legal problems and lawsuits came to an end in August when a home was razed in Rustic Canyon, at 909 and 921 Greentree Rd.
The L.A. Department of Building and Safety had made an error in issuing a residential building permit and, in 2007, five Pacific Palisades residents who had pursued the case in court and prevailed, were awarded $425,000. (The total cost to taxpayers was close to $600,000 with legal costs.)
The house was owned by Vickey and Mehr Beglari until August 9, 2016, when they were taken over in foreclosure by the Bank of NY Mellon.
It was sold in 2018 to Ojita Investment for a little more than $3 million, and then leveled last month.
The costly, frustrating saga began in 1995, when the Beglaris and their two children moved into a house at 864 Brooktree Rd. (Beglari legally had the address changed to 909 Greentree).
Three years later and now with four children, Beglari, a developer (who was constructing a new gym at the Palisades Recreation Center), pulled permits to enlarge the house. Building and Safety approved a 6,500-sq.-ft addition to the Beglaris’ existing 2,000-sq.-ft. ranch house.
In 2001, five neighbors (attorney Ronald Oster and his wife, Superior Court Judge Diana Wheatley; attorney John Rosenfeld; and Superior Court Judge David Horwitz and his wife, Jacki) complained to the Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) Commissioners that: 1) the house exceeded 36-feet height from grade; 2) the depth of the front yard was not properly measured; and 3) the conditions imposed by a 1955-yard variance precluded the anticipated design.
Commissioners concluded that LADBS did not error and denied an appeal by the plaintiffs.
That same year, members of the Homeowners Association of Rustic Canyon wrote to Councilman Cindy Miscikowski and the Building Department, asking that the project be reduced in scale.
The Beglaris wrote neighbors that since Mehr was a developer and contractor, he understood the ramifications of City rules and regulations.
They asked, “We also have our own concerns as too why there is so much interest in our development. . ..It would be inappropriate for neighbors to ask since each homeowner would have a different idea as to how they think our home should be built.”
One neighbor replied, “It is true, I’m afraid, that everyone confronted by it and is appalled at the choice of edifice for that particular lot. . . .”
Another said, “I watched in horror as you destroyed one or more venerable trees, then dug an underground garage, then proceeded with your two-story addition that drastically changes the appearance of Brooktree Road. . .. Please do not attempt to solicit my support. I am deeply offended by your letters and will oppose the completion of your project.”
The five neighbors next appealed the case, but a City zoning administrator concurred with Building and Safety.
In 2003, the plaintiffs took the case to court (which had been moved to Orange County Superior Court).
The five asked the court to set aside the City Planning ruling, focusing solely on the front-yard setback. In October, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the City to revoke all permits and a certificate of occupancy at 921 Greentree.
The City and the Beglaris appealed, but in May 2005, the Court of Appeal upheld the earlier court decision finding that the house was 14 feet closer to the street than permitted by Los Angeles Municipal Code section 12.07.01C1.
The City then revoked all building permits and the certificate of occupancy, although the Beglari family had been living in the house for about three years.
While the case was winding through the court, Beglari purchased a second property at 921 Greentree Rd. in 2004.
He tried to skirt the setback law by receiving a permit to build a small canopy at 921, essentially altering the front-yard setback for the block.
The City said that Beglari had now satisfied the setback and reissued the permits and certificate of occupancy in February 2006. Subsequently, Beglari tore down the canopy and house.
That same year in July, an L.A. Weekly story titled “The Human Teardown” noted that “City Controller Laura Chick’s scathing audit this week shows an out-of-control Department of Building and Safety that allows Developers to have their way with Los Angeles at the expense of public safety.”
The article pointed to the Beglari case: “One lawsuit that illustrates the lengths the city goes to to approve improper construction involves a massive addition to a Westside home that could be marred by a questionable lending agreement.”
The story noted that “Los Angeles judges David Horwitz and Diane Wheatley, and real estate lawyer John Rosenfeld, say the city doesn’t enforce its own laws. Rather, it works closely with developers to help them find a way around the laws.
“’This is a case about a persistent refusal by the [building department] to enforce the zoning laws, including a refusal to follow binding decisions by this court,’ reads a motion filed by the plaintiffs.
“The department replied that it made ‘an honest mistake’ in granting Beglari revised building permits, prompting the opponents to state, ‘Instead of rectifying the ‘mistake,’ [the department] engaged in a series of delays while Beglari continued to build as fast as possible.’”
The plaintiffs objected to the City’s re-issuance of the permits and in May filed against the City and Mr. Adelman, the general manager of LADBS, for contempt of court, for failing to check with the court before reissuing permits.
In June 2006, an Order to Show Cause RE Contempt was invoked against the City and Adelman, but not against Beglari.
The case was appealed, but parties agreed to private mediation. At that time the Rustic Canyon plaintiffs demanded between $1 and $1.2 million and asked the City to evict the Beglari family and pursue enforcement that might include demolition of the front 14 feet of the house. Mediation failed.
In early February 2007, before the appeal was to be heard in Orange County, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo urged the City Council to approve a $425,000 settlement for the plaintiffs.
Beglari’s attorney Mark Baker asked the City not to settle and in an April letter wrote, “The neighbors have succeeded in intimidating and bullying the City into paying what amounts to blood money. The City should stand up for itself and fight with every means available to it to prevent one Orange County judge from imposing his personal view on City laws and regulations.”
In September 2007, Orange County Judge David Velasquez ruled that the City had improperly applied the setbacks.
In November, that court said that the City had improperly determined the setback at 909 Greentree Rd. and ordered the City to have defendants comply with setback requirements and prohibited it from reinstating or issuing permits unless the property was in compliance.
After losing an appeal in 2009, the Beglaris were given an order to comply or be guilty of a misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 or six months in jail.
In a March 12, 2009 story in a local paper (“Begalris Seek Variance for Their Home”), the Pacific Palisades Community Council weighed in.
“This has led to widespread intentional disregard of regulations, much to the detriment of the community,” PPCC Chair Richard Cohen said, and added that the Council was against granting the Beglaris a variance.
A recent story in Circling the News said we had sought a comment from Pacific Palisades Attorney Keith Turner, who specializes in view protection cases and neighbor vs. neighbor disputes.
“The Beglari case is a good example of property owners being diligent to ensure that a neighbor’s construction project complies with the local zoning and building codes,” Turner said. “Concerned neighbors should contact an attorney as soon as possible during the development, permitting or construction process to determine their potential legal rights and remedies.”
Now the houses and the Beglaris are gone from Rustic, with taxpayers paying out more than $600,000 for the City’s error.
The “New” Gym Built by Beglari
Through Begl Construction Company
The Palisades gym built by Beglari, through his Begl Construction Co. in Van Nuys for $1.77 million, also resulted in issues.
The October 4, 2001 minutes for the Palisades Community Council quoted resident Stuart Muller as saying that “there has been a failure by the contractor to complete and/or repair this gym.”
The minutes stated: “This failure has caused damage to the infrastructure of the building and the area surrounding the building. There remain several problems, including the sewer system that continues to back up and many portions of the project that remain incomplete or have been completed by using ‘shoddy’ construction methods. Stuart also expressed concerns regarding the new library and recommend that the construction be closely monitored.”
L.A. City’s Debbie Dyner noted at that meeting that there had been problems with the contractors used to renovate other park and recreation facilities. It was agreed in principle this city department should only work on running the parks, not in the area of construction or the hiring of contractors.
“George Wolfberg will head a committee, along with Stuart Muller and Kurt Toppel, which will look into the issues noted above concerning the park and gym facilities,” the minutes stated. “Toppel had raised almost $2 million for the gym and had secured Prop A funds.”
In a later City document, it stated that the new gymnasium cost $1,786,515 and that the work received a U rating.