By Keith Turner
With all of its twists and turns, the Beglari case is an excellent example of just how difficult it can be to enforce Los Angeles building codes, even when multiple attorneys, retried judges, and high-end real estate are involved.
In 1998, Mehr Beglari started to pull permits for a substantial remodel of an existing home in the Rustic Canyon area of Pacific Palisades. When applying for building permits, Beglari erroneously calculated the required front yard setback. As a result, he obtained approval to construct an addition that was is 14 feet closer to the street than permitted by the governing sections of the Los Angeles Municipal Code.
Five neighbors lodged a complaint with the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS), alleging that the house exceeded a height of 36 feet from grade; the front yard depth was not properly measured; and that a yard variance granted in 1955 precluded the remodel design. The five neighbors were no strangers to the legal issues. They consisted of attorney Ronald Oster; attorney John Rosenfeld; and retired Superior Court Judge David Horwitz and his wife; and retired Superior Court Judge Diana Wheatley. When the LADBS concluded that the Beglaris’ permits were properly issued, the neighbors appealed the case to the Department of City Planning. However, the City Zoning Administrator sided with the LADBS, and ended the appeal.
The neighbors persevered. In 2002, they filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court to challenge the ruling by the Department of City Planning. They dropped two of their complaints, targeting only on the front-yard setback issue. (click here to read the Complaint.) In October 2003, the trial court ruled in favor of the neighbors, and ordered the City to revoke all of the building permits for the structure, including the certificate of occupancy. The Beglaries and the City of Los Angeles subsequently appealed.
The writ was affirmed by the court of appeal. Horwitz v. City of Angeles (2004) 124 Cal. App. 4th 1344. The court that then newly-remodeled house encroached onto the front-yard setback by 14 feet, in violation of Los Angeles Municipal Code section 12.07.01.C.1.
After the Court of Appeal decision, the City revoked all building permits and the certificate of occupancy for 909 Greentree, leaving the Belgaris with an un-permitted home. However, the Belgaris did not sit idly by; instead, they hatched a plan to get their permits back. In 2004, they purchased another property, right down the street, at 921 Greentree Road. Then, they obtained a permit for and constructed a small canopy on the front of 921 Greentree. The new canopy changed the front-yard setback calculation for the entire block, including for their house at 909 Greentree.
Based on this altered front-yard setback calculation, the Belgaris’ home at 909 Greentree satisfied the LAMC requirements. In February 2006, the City reinstated the building permits and certificate of occupancy for 909 Greentree.
The neighbors responded by filing another lawsuit, this time against the City of Los Angeles and the LADBS general manager, for reissuing the permits in violation of the court’s prior order. The superior court issued an order finding that the City and the Department of Building and Safety were in contempt for violation of that order, and ordered them to appear for appear at an arraignment and trial setting.
However, the case never got to trial. Instead, in February 2007, the City Council approved a $425,000 settlement for the five neighbor-plaintiffs. The Belgaris’ attorney asked the City not to settle, accusing the neighbors of “intimidating and bullying the City” into paying into paying what amounts to blood money.” Nonetheless, due to the high potential damages exposure and potential criminal contempt proceedings, the City Attorney recommended that the City settle the dispute by paying the plaintiffs’ attorney fees, which at the time totaled $425,000.
The litigation between the City and Belgaris continued until 2013, with at least two more trips to the Court of Appeal in 2009 and 2013. Apparently the litigaiton ended in 2013.
According to public records, it appears that the Belgaris lost the home to foreclosure in 2016. In 2018, the new owner sought a demolition permit, and according to Nextdoor website, as of July 31, 2019, the structure was finally being demolised.
To the author, the question is whether the result would have been different if the complaining neighbors had directly sued the property based on Gov’t Code section 36900 instead of proceeding by writ action against the City?