Originally Published by CITYWATCHLA - Iconic 1960s student protest leader and Leftist intellectual Tom Hayden is plotting his next revolution, this time in leafy, serene Brentwood, at an outdoor table at Starbucks. Hayden is on the phone, digging into his deep Rolodex to solicit the help of a hot-shot Beverly Hills real estate agent in his fight to block construction of two giant mansions in bucolic, lost-in-time Sullivan Canyon, not far from where Hayden is now sitting.
“A beautiful woman who only handles listings for $15 million or more,” Hayden says of the realtor. On her voice mail, Hayden leaves a message reminding her of their past political ties: both were part of the 1970s crusade to elect Pat Brown’s seminarian son Jerry as California’s governor.
Soon an acquaintance drops by to say hello. “I had a stroke two months ago and I’m still recovering,” Hayden says by way of explaining the cane he now uses for support. The acquaintance, 30 years Hayden’s junior, is bubbling over about a project to publish photos of Vietnam, a nation whose history is entangled with that of Hayden’s. The former anti-Vietnam War activist who famously visited Hanoi while U.S. planes bombed the city, nods his appreciation of the project.
But Hayden’s latest project is very much of the here and now. (Photo right: Former California State Senator Tom Hayden.)
Earlier Hayden’s wife, actress Barbara Williams, stood on the couple’s patio that overlooks Sullivan Canyon. With a sweep of her hands, Williams outlines the magnitude of the development project that she and her husband are fighting.
The project, Williams explains, would involve bulldozing rugged hillsides, burying natural streams, erecting a 400 foot long retaining wall and generally scaring the daylights out of hundreds of woodland and chaparral-dwelling creatures - coyotes, raccoons and deer - that now freely cavort in rugged Sullivan Canyon.
All this commotion and devastation to produce two 15,000 square foot mansions on a pristine 12 acre parcel of land that has been left to its own devices for eons. It’s a disaster in the making, Williams said.
Also fighting the so-called Namvar development project is a growing cast of foot-soldiers and financial angels, including legendary TV producer Norman Lear and several well-known actors who live in the area but are loathe to jump into the limelight of a brewing Brentwood controversy.
Councilman Mike Bonin told homeowners the project is emblematic of a “fundamentally broken development process” in Los Angeles. Hayden’s persistence has also helped secure strong objections to the project from Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and state Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica).
At the heart of the fight is a sense that City Hall has horribly betrayed the homeowners. And that there must be more going on than simple city ineptitude to explain the betrayal.
Gideon Kracov, the homeowners attorney, wrote that the Sullivan Canyon and Brentwood neighbors of the proposed project “were not given required notice [of the impending development] and were unaware of this massive project until chainsaws and bulldozers came to knock down 58 protected oak and sycamore trees in September 2014….That was a tragedy.”
Sara Nichols, retired environmental lawyer and Sullivan Canyon resident, is outraged that the city for more than three years considered – and finally approved – building, grading and tree removal permits for the project, all without public notice.
During this period, the developer also scored another major, behind-the-scenes victory at City Hall: an exemption from having to comply with the city Baseline Hillside Ordinance, which, if applied to the project, Nichols says, would result in a significantly smaller project.
The proposed grading of the rugged hills to accommodate the building pads for the two mansions (and a 6,000 square foot “accessory” building) will require cutting and filling 166,000 cubic yards of dirt. Imagine a football field, including the end zones, filled with dirt, 33 feet deep.
However, if the project complied with the Baseline Hillside Ordinance (BHO), the grading allowed under the existing city-approved grading permit would be significantly reduced, the opponents claim.
Attorney Kracov has called the city’s decision to exempt the project from the BHO an “abuse of discretion.”
Kracov has also argued that the city’s environmental review of the project is “stale.” Here, the argument is that the project the city reviewed for its environmental impacts (which were found to be minimal) is not the same project as the one permitted by the city. The real project is actually much bigger and more environmentally hurtful than the one the city reviewed, Kracov claims.
As one observer noted the developer ran a “bait and switch” scam on the city and the city fell for it.
The unanswered questions from opponents of the project are how and why the developer is getting away with all this skullduggery.
In an email to Mayor Eric Garcetti, Nichols warned many residents have a deep-seated conviction City Hall “got paid off to sign those permits” while keeping the residents completely in the dark about what was happening. “The whole thing stinks,” Nichols told the mayor.
Garcetti replied to Nichols, dismissing the idea of a City Hall conspiracy favoring the developer.
“There is no top-down conspiracy,” Garcetti wrote in an email dated Dec. 5, 2014. “I have found 99 out of a 100 times this suspicion is not the explanation, as frustrating as that is.”
The mayor went on to say in a Nov. 10, 2014 email to Nichols that: “I am not a ‘mansionization’ supporter. Quite the contrary, I have spoken out about this and worked with a lot of different neighborhoods to help address individual cases, both in my time as a city councilmember and now as the mayor.”
Yet Garcetti also warned that while “Mike Bonin has my fullest support on this…I can’t guarantee you an outcome…but given our mutual friends and personal relationship I have let my staff know that they should follow this closely.”
Still, the suspicion lingers that the city’s handling of the Namvar project, as it has been dubbed by the local residents, smells rotten, especially the failure to notify residents about key benchmarks in the approvals of the project.
Nichols says the project opponents have 16 declarations from residents who say they should have been notified but were not notified by City Hall about impending hearings and permit approvals concerning the Namvar project. One of the declarants was an employee of Norman Lear whose job is to log all mail Lear receives into a computer. “That person searched for anything resembling a notice and found nothing,” Nichols said.
Once alerted that a giant building project was headed their way, the residents lodged an appeal with e the Garcetti-appointees on the Building and Safety Commission. That encounter did nothing to quiet the homeowners’ suspicions.
“We were stunned by the commissioner’s handling of the evidence,” said Nichols. “This violation of constitutional due process was characterized by Mr. [commissioner Evangelos] Ambatielos as a small technicality!” During the hearing, the developer team’s chumminess with another commissioner, Javier Nunez, was “stomach-turning,” Nichols said.
Hayden also traces his concerns about the integrity of City Hall’s in handling the project to the Namvar clan in Beverly Hills. The oldest brother of that family, Ezri, won fame as the “Madoff of the Iranian Jewish Community” after running an alleged Ponzi scheme that ripped off tens of millions of dollars from Iranian immigrant investors. Ezri Namvar (photo right), who declared bankruptcy and was convicted of wire fraud by the feds, is now in prison.
Ezri and two of his brothers, Houshang (aka Sean) and Mousa Namvar, have been the principal investors in the Sullivan Canyon project. Ezri appears to have lost his interest in property after declaring bankruptcy.
Further fueling the opponents’ suspicions has been an Oct. 2014 emailed memo by a state official. Engineering geologist Valerie Carillo Zara wrote to her supervisors at the Los Angeles Water Quality Control Board that Houshang Namvar and his associate, Sam Shakib had repeatedly tried to intimidate her as she reviewed their application for a water board permit to alter the streams running through the Sullivan Canyon property.
“Even with others (government officials) around, these guys are still trying to intimidate me,” Carillo Zara wrote. “I just don’t feel safe around these people.”
The engineer also said she was deeply troubled that the developer’s team had “pulled CDFW [California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials] “aside [and] asked them how much money it would take get their new SAA [Streambed Alteration Agreement] permitted faster.
“I’m extremely uncomfortable when these guys ask us how much money they can pay us to get this project going, and they’ve done this numerous times. It just concerns me to hear them making statements that would lead to illegal activity and I don’t want to be around any of it.”
Hayden has written state officials demanding they investigate Carillo Zara’s allegations to determine if criminal prosecutions might be in order.
“This saga raises far-reaching questions about the integrity of the democratic process in an age of big money and bigger mansions,” Hayden says. “It reveals how formerly open systems can be gamed by wily predators despite all the laws on the books protecting streambeds, hillsides, wildlife and oases of silence.”
And speaking of silence: all the signs point to the probability that no one plans to seriously investigate Carillo Zara’s troubling allegations. Carillo Zara’s superiors, Sam Unger and Deborah Smith, were both out of pocket this week and their assistant said no one else was available to comment. A California Department of Fish and Wildlife executive, Edmond Pert, previously sidestepped the question when Hayden asked if CDFW would investigate.
The next chapter in this fight will come when the city’s zoning administrator issues its decision regarding the residents request that the developer basically be stripped of all his approvals and required to start the process all over again. A decision is just days away.
Not surprisingly, the developer’s attorney has accused the opponents of being rich NIMBY’s, telling a reporter that his client’s foes were “some of Los Angeles wealthiest residents trying to stop someone from having a house right next door.”
Such dismissive remarks rankle Hayden, who lives in a modest book-filled ranch house with his wife, son and a pair of dogs. “There is nothing parochial about our concerns,” Hayden said, noting that his opposition is not to some inconsequential development but to one that “will wipe out a pristine canyon and fragile eco-system.”
Besides, he argues, if City Hall can blindside and run roughshod over an affluent Brentwood neighborhood then what does that say about the prospects of poorer folks fighting similar assaults on their neighborhoods?
(John Schwada is a former investigative reporter for Fox 11 in Los Angeles, the LA Times and the late Herald Examiner. He is a contributor to CityWatch. Disclosure: John Schwada’s media consulting firm works with the Sullivan Canyon homeowners.)
Vol 13 Issue 58
Pub: Jul 17, 2015