Surprise! Resident sees neighbor’s house as monstrosity

Four years ago, Steve Graber and others of Claremont Heights Drive looked over drafts associated with a neighbor’s plan to add another level to his 1950s ranch-style home, characteristic of all the homes in the north Claremont neighborhood. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until last summer, when the second level went up…and up and up, according to Mr. Graber.

He now finds himself between a 30-foot wall and a hard place.

Though the remodel is nearly finished, Mr. Graber and Claremont Heights Drive neighbors have not given up the fight. Mr. Graber prepares to file a complaint against the city in the wake of the new addition to their street, maintaining that he was only kept half in the loop as to what was going on.

“Nobody got notification that this monstrosity was going to be a monstrosity,” Mr. Graber said.

Mr. Graber, who has been living on Claremont Heights for the past 12 years, remembers speaking with his neighbor, Hassan Kobaissi, about the possibility of a second-level addition to the home about 6 years ago. He didn’t think much of it at the time.

Mr. Graber’s first concerns came a couple years later when he and neighbors found themselves looking over drafts for the remodel at a city meeting. He describes them as sketchy drawings.

“I had no concept of the size. I don’t think anybody did,” he said.

Neighbor Marilynn Waters said she certainly didn’t: “The neighbor is a nice guy, so when he tells you about construction you just say, ‘go ahead.’ Nothing seemed out of the ordinary to me.”

With little complaint from unsuspecting neighbors, the Hans were approved in 2009. It wasn’t until the walls were going up late last year that the neighbors realized the full scope of the project. To Mr. Graber’s surprise, the additions to his neighbor’s home fell within 4 feet from his property, from his wall to the neighbor’s vaulted roof.

“It violated my property deeds,” Mr. Graber said. “It wasn’t a remodel. It was a complete tear-down.”

Ms. Waters says now the first thing she sees when she wakes up in the morning and stares outside her bedroom window is no longer the Chino mountainscape, but the vaulted roof next door.

“It turned out to be something else completely, and the city and the architectural commission, knowing this, should have been more proactive. The city and commissions work for us, right? A project like this deserved a site visit.”

Mr. Graber and Ms. Waters took their concerns to the city, meeting with City Manager Tony Ramos and City Planner Mark Carnahan last August to voice their fears. They left the meeting unsatisfied. The neighbors brought their concerns to the forefront once again last week, this time in a public setting at the Claremont City Council meeting. While citing problems with the development, such as the fact that a fire marshall has never been called out to approve the project, neighbors called for an immediate stop order on the home.

While the owners of the home under scrutiny did not return the COURIER’s calls for comment, City Manager Tony Ramos addressed the situation at last Tuesday’s city council meeting, and stated that no such stop order can be made on the Claremont Heights home construction. According to Mr. Ramos, review and approval by the Los Angeles County Fire Department is not required for home additions or remodels unless the home is in the high fire zone. This house is not in that zone. While the roof may indeed exceed setback requirements, the city’s land-use code allows for architectural features to exceed the required setback by up to 2 feet.

Also, the city does not require a survey for home additions and, while home additions usually do not require formal reviews, the city opted to take the addition before the architectural commission at 2 separate meetings.

“We cannot stop work on this home,” Mr. Ramos said, adding, “It is a large home, I don’t think there is any argument about that. It went through a process and that is the process that has been established by policy in this city and, in as much as we understand our residents’ concerns…there isn’t anything we can do about it at this point.”

Taking into consideration the neighbors’ feelings toward the project and recognizing the letters the city has been receiving in recent weeks, Mr. Ramos said that he will schedule a meeting with the Claremont Heights neighbors to revisit the topic and if deemed necessary, will have it re-agendized.


The road to mansionization

The Claremont Heights Drive story is not an unfamiliar one. In hearing tales like this one, residents are reminded of why the Mansionization Ordinance was adopted in the first place. Mansionization policy went into effect in Claremont on October 21, 2009 with the goal of promoting “neighborhood identity and conservation of individual neighborhood identity.” According to the ordinance, such guidelines would help “reduce the potential for construction of inappropriately-sized additions, often referred to as ‘mansionization.’”

“It basically set formulas for how big a house you can build based on the size of the lot,” explained Brian Desatnik, director of community development. “It many cases, it reduced the maximum house size from what was previously allowed.”

Unfortunately for the residents of Claremont Heights Drive, the development on their street was approved just months before mansionization went into effect. Therefore, none of the strict guidelines applied to this property, which received necessary approval according to the previous rules. And residents say they didn’t detect any injustice until the walls started going up just this past year.

For now the construction continues, but Mr. Graber and Ms. Waters and her husband, Bill Waters, are hopeful for some reprieve.

“I think there is a moral quality that belongs to the city council, to the city, that needs to be addressed,” Mr. Waters said. “This should not have happened to our neighborhood.”

—Beth Hartnett


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