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L.A. City Council votes to buy land in El Sereno for $9 million to settle lawsuit [Updated]

The Los Angeles City Council voted today to settle a lawsuit over a contested 24-home subdivision planned for El Sereno, agreeing to buy the property for $9 million so it can be converted into a park.

The developers of the property, Monterey Hills Investors, sued the city last year after the council demanded more environmental review of the project, planned for a site known as Elephant Hill.

Councilman Jose Huizar said the city would borrow money in the short term to pay for the purchase of the 19-acre site. Over the long term the city will seek state funding to help defray the cost, he said.

"This is an environmental justice victory because proper environmental review was not conducted" on the planned subdivision, said Huizar, whose district includes El Sereno.

A Superior Court judge had a different view, ruling in January that the council had no authority to order Monterey Hills Investors to perform a new environmental impact report on the project. In the wake of that ruling, attorney Ben Reznik, a City Hall lobbyist who represents the developer, vowed to seek damages of at least $8 million, saying the city's actions postponed completion of his client's project until after the collapse of the region's real estate market.

Reznik, who has held campaign fundraisers for Huizar and other city elected officials, had no comment on today's vote, saying the settlement had not been finalized. As he prepared for the damages phase of the case, Reznik gave notice that his client intended to depose Huizar, Councilman Ed Reyes and possibly employees in the mayor's office, according to a report obtained by The Times.

The Elephant Hill project has been debated for years. But the fight reached a critical stage two years ago, when the council voted to block the Department of Building and Safety from issuing a permit that would allow the developer to grade the site.

The city attorney's office sided with Reznik, warning council members that they lacked the power to seek more review. But Huizar sided with neighborhood activists and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that argued that El Sereno needs more undeveloped hillside space.

On Aug. 12, the council instructed the city's lawyers to negotiate a purchase of the site. Although the developer was attempting to build on roughly 14 acres of land, the council agreed to buy an additional five acres that were not part of the original project.

[Updated at 1:56 p.m.: Today’s vote drew strong praise from El Sereno resident Elva Yanez, who spent the last five years rallying her neighbors against the project. Yanez said the fight over the subdivision dates back to 1984, when the first environmental document on the project was released.

“This has been a long and hard-fought struggle,” she said.]

-- David Zahniser

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Comments () | Archives (14)

More parks and green space instead of mini-malls, mcmansions or apartment/condo clusters is just what the community needs.

"Councilman Jose Huizar said the city would borrow money in the short term to pay for the purchase of the 19-acre site. Over the long term the city will seek state funding to help defray the cost, he said."

Borrow, borrow, borrow. Another boondoggle that we'll be stuck paying for...where do they think the state funding is going to come from? They're broke too! "Spend away, the sucker taxpayers will be forced to pick up the tab..."

At a time when we have impose a hiring freeze for new police officers and force city employees to take furloughs, the Council decides to spend $9 MILLION on overpriced land? We would not be in this mess if Councilman Huizar - and his colleagues - had the backbone to stand up to neighborhood opposition and tell them that the city had no legal grounds to turn down the project. Instead, these politicians choose to protect their political careers at taxpayer expense. This settlement is outrageous.

huizar is a loser, the city should not have to buy land so that gangbangers can have a park to deal in.la city is the most corrupt city in califas.

This is a true victory for El Sereno, I live here and we dont need no more homes or apartments this is a beautiful community that needs parks and a space for the youth and families to hang out other than El Sereno Park. If you think about it we live in the land that has not been touch thanks to these hills. COngrats Jose Huizar and El Sereno. THANKS FOR NO MORE DEVELOPMENT!!!

The City can't afford to pay it's bills, or pay it's employees, but they can sure come up with money to buy land! Is it just me or am I the only one smelling a rat!

Are these not the Council members LA Times was supporting a week back against the City Attorney. Be careful when you play sides. Not a good idea to get into land use issues of which you have little idea.

Let me share several thoughts on this supposed environmental justice victory.

While I share with Elva Yanez, in her desire to see Elephant Hill preserved. I am dismay that these legal proceedings have driving up the price to $9 million dollars from the $6 million dollar price tag before the lawsuit.

Then there is the question of the connections to campaign donations as arraigned by Ben Reszik. Something in these proceedings cause me to flashback to the controversial Las Lomas Project and how the threat of a lawsuit was used by an politically connected developer.

Open space advocates within Northeast LA, during these depressed financial times, should take into consideration, the idea of getting more open space for a finite amount of dollars.

Long before Elva Yanez moved into CD 14, there have been other open space proposals such as the Ascot Hill Project and the 40+ year effort to restore the Hazard Park Wetlands, that merit consideration and can move along fatser, considering that they are both owned by the City of Los Angeles.

In closing, while I support Councilman Huizar's efforts, in priciple, to conserve our remaining open spaces in CD 14, I would call upon the Councilman to release the details of the legal proceedings in the interest of openness and ethics.

Scott Johnson
Former Sierra Club Central Committee Conservation Chair.

*my views are only my own and do not the represent Sierra Club

People never seem to amaze me. Don't get me wrong, preservation of hill side land is great, but business is business and when someone has that much money invested (investment property) then they should be able to do what they please with it. If these neighbors had investment property , trust and believe the shoe would be on the other foot and there perspectives would be a lot different.

Great bargain for the City to pay for this land when land is the cheapest in decades. I overheard a constituent from Northeast Los Angeles say "Proposition 84 $ from the state which were voted by voters for park use is anticipated to pay back the city." Sounds to me like the Eastside of the City where there are few parks did well today.

Land costs are down. Good time to purchase property. In future, city gets State Proposition dollars for parks and wallah, everybody wins. Seems like the City and residents of El Sereno got a great deal.

This is a win-win situation if ever there was one. Everyone gets what they wanted, the local residents get protection from another disaster like the Monterey Hills Condos, the developer gets to recoup their investment and the most park poor community in any major city in the United States gets 'open space'. They didn't want to spoil us with a park just yet but dedicating the land to open space is a step in the right direction. Thank you Los Angeles City Council !!
YOU ROCK!!

Oh yeah, Astonished... it's just you, no rat in this mix, except maybe the developers ruthless partners and a very confused ex city attorney!

Scott,

Review the public documents. The City is paying assessed value of the land and additional land that wasn't in dispute. The City doesn't have to pay damages nor attorney's fees. It is a great deal. It sounds like the developer gave up on fighting and threw the towel in. That, in my book, when someone throws in the towel, is a victory.

Also, Ascot Hills, like all other state funded projects, is on hold until the State freezes up the money. Moreover, the Santa Monica Conservancy, I understand, is also supporting that project and it is moving right along. As for the Hazard Wetlands that you describe, there is no such designation by the the federal government. You should first verify that it is designated as such. If not, do the work, and put in the application. I am sure that "real" Sierra Club members would be happy to support it.


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