Landowners fume at no-permit road

first_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORERose Parade grand marshal Rita Moreno talks New Year’s Day outfit and ‘West Side Story’ remake Four years ago, neighbors warned city officials about massive grading in the hills, and the Department of Building and Safety issued an order for the pastor, John Park, and his Korean church to stop construction. Officials said he initially filed an engineering report to fix the problem, but when the report was deemed inadequate, he ignored city regulations, graded and filled a canyon and built a large church on the land. The building is tucked behind a hill just south of La Tuna Canyon Road, so the construction wasn’t visible from the road. Even after a city inspector opened another investigation in July, neighbors said they watched Park continue to use heavy equipment. They said he carved a 40-foot-wide road through a neighbor’s pristine hillside to land he rented to Cingular Wireless for a cell phone tower. Building-safety officials said the illegal grading is much worse than they previously supposed. They said tons of unstable soil could slide with a heavy rain. Still, managers defended their handling of the case. “We tried to issue orders and tried to get them to comply, but some people feel they’re above the law, and they’re not going to comply,” said Bob Steinbach, assistant bureau chief. “If they choose not to comply, we’re not police officers. We can’t go out there and stop them.” The department can refer cases to the city attorney, but Steinbach said officials are reluctant to go to court because cases can get held up for years. Now city officials are attempting to stop further construction. Contacted by phone, Park said he does not speak English and could not answer questions about the church property. However, neighbors said they’ve spoken with Park in English many times. Fire Department officials visited the site Friday, and City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel has asked the city attorney and district attorney to investigate. Greuel said there are city provisions to stop illegal construction but they’re often used only after damage is done. She intends to look at the city’s enforcement policies to see whether they truly protect the community. “This is going to force a lot of us to ask Building and Safety (officials) how they can use their tools in a better way to make sure this doesn’t happen,” she said. But that doesn’t help Liz Gustafson Howe and her relatives whose land is now bisected by a two-lane road graded without their permission. Gustafson family members once lived in the rural area and held on to eight acres after their home there was flooded in the 1970s. “We have a 40-foot road through our land; this has ruined our property,” Howe said. “We hung on to it with the hope that someday we would use it. We planned on our kids having that land.” Worse, the family could be liable if a mudslide originated from their land and damaged property down the hill. And, because city law requires inspectors to cite the landowner, the Gustafson relatives will be cited for illegal grading even though they had nothing to do with the work and did not want it done. The family would then have to sue Park and his church to recoup expenses. “We understand the situation,” Steinbach said. “We are not going to aggressively pursue compliance (from the Gustafsons) because we know they didn’t cause the situation.” Another neighbor estimates it will cost up to $500,000 to correct the problem caused by the illegal road Park is accused of building. Steinbach said the church could be responsible for restoring the land to its original condition. But some worry that the land’s old contours will never be restored. Local governments have a poor track record on requiring offenders to completely fix the damage, said Paul Edelman of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which owns 1,100 acres next to the church property. “That’s a really permanent, serious scar,” he added. “And a road that wide takes almost 100 years to restore itself naturally.” Building and Safety Department officials said they also have had a hard time finding the legal owner of the property, now listed as Praise the Lord in Holy Service. There’s no listed phone number, and the address listed is at 6682 Selma Ave. in Los Angeles, which is the First Baptist Church of Hollywood. A First Baptist Church employee said a Korean church just rents a chapel there for a few hours on Sunday. Meanwhile, the North Valley Planning Commission last week denied a request by Cingular Wireless to expand its cell phone tower on the church property. After looking at pictures of the grading, commissioners said damage was some of the worst they have ever seen, and they could not approve the project because Cingular workers would have to drive on illegal roads that cross people’s property without their permission. Cingular leases the land from the Praise the Lord in Holy Service church and John Park, but spokesman Art Navarro said Friday his company did not ask Park to build a new road. Cingular is now resurveying the land and contacting all the property owners to ensure service crews are not crossing people’s property without their permission. Kerry Cavanaugh, (818) 713-3746 [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Faced with furious landowners and extensive environmental damage, city building inspectors are finally trying to catch up with a clergyman they say illegally carved up a La Tuna Canyon hillside to build his church. Neighbors, who first complained about the illegal construction in 2001, say city officials’ lack of enforcement has created a dangerous landslide risk for residents downhill and an expensive liability for property owners whose land was bulldozed without their permission. “This has been going on for years with the church, and they’ve been cited several times,” said Linda Greco, president of the La Tuna Canyon Community Association. “I just wish somebody would enforce the laws. When you’re doing illegal grading, it’s putting the whole community at risk. There are mudslide issues.” last_img

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