By Brian Park
After more than two years of planning and refining, a doctor who has been trying to build his dream home on a picturesque San Juan Capistrano hillside finally got the go-ahead to move forward with his plans Tuesday after the City Council turned down an appeal by nearby residents who have long protested against the home’s modern design and location.
Arsalan Darmal, a Newport Beach-based child psychologist, said after the council’s unanimous decision that he hopes to build his 6,600-square-foot home within a year. His proposed home will feature a 38-foot driveway, an auto court, a two-car garage, a single carport, five parking stalls, a swimming pool and spa.
“The only frustration I have from this is that the process took so long,” Darmal said. “I could’ve built this house much cheaper three years ago. Now it’s going to cost me 40 percent more to build it.”
Darmal purchased a .6-acre, tax-defaulted hillside property, located off Avenida California, for $5,000 in 2007. The home will sit atop a hill overlooking Interstate 5 and includes a scenic view of Dana Point Harbor.
Darmal’s future neighbors in the adjacent Pacifica San Juan community have challenged the home throughout the city review process, contending that its contemporary design sharply contrasted with the California-style architecture of the area and that it would obstruct their own view of the Pacific Ocean.
On Tuesday, however, their arguments focused on the city’s review process, which they believed lacked adequate notice of key meetings and enough opportunities for public review—enough grounds to constitute a Brown Act violation, they said.
“Our point is that the public has not been heard on any design issue,” said resident Paul Jenkinson. “When it has been heard, it’s been restricted in what it can say.”
When Darmal’s plans were initially brought to the council in 2011, the city discovered his land was not part of the Forester Canyon development plan. The council allowed Darmal’s plans to move forward by establishing a new “Hillside Estate Residential” zone, so long as Darmal received the Design Review Committee’s final approval for lighting, landscaping and design.
Residents complained that although the committee’s meeting in December was public, they were not allowed to voice their concerns. City Attorney Hans Van Ligten said that since the committee serves in an advisory role to the Planning Commission, state law does not require them to hold public hearings.
Additionally, Van Ligten said the council’s 2011 decision and the committee’s decision were final and were not subject to appeal. Residents sought to halt Darmal’s plans by appealing the Planning Commission’s decision in February, which focused solely on grading modifications to the hillside.
In an effort to delay or stop Darmal’s plans, more than a dozen San Juan Pacifica residents pleaded with the council to appeal the commission’s decision.
“Retails shops, fast food shops, strip malls, office complexes and homes in our city are all held to a standard of compliance with the same architectural ideals,” resident Barbara Brock said. “Please do not allow this big, ultra-modern block to be the most predominant building in this section of San Juan Capistrano.”
Another resident, Kristen Freska, complained that the location of his home allowed Darmal to avoid paying expensive homeowners association fees or into the Mello-Roos community finance district, property taxes that go toward the local school district.
“He’s right on the community and he’s got the Pacific Ocean on the other side, so there’s not a lot of places he could be getting benefits from except for us,” Freska said. “Why is he getting all the benefits of our Mello-Roos without payments and obligations?”
Several residents quoted city staff and council and committee members to support their arguments. However, Robert Williams, chairman of the Planning Commission who also serves as its representative on the Design Review Committee, said he was misquoted.
“Usually the Design Review Committee doesn’t take final action on anything,” Williams said. “I still would have voted in favor of this project even if it had gone through the normal process.”
Williams, who is an architect, added that modern houses aren’t new to the city.
“There’s a ton of (modern) houses in San Juan. I’m in the process of designing one on Peppertree (Bend) that’s ultra-contemporary,” Williams said.
Council members expressed sympathy with residents, but could not support the appeal because the project had been rigorously scrutinized and had gone through the proper review process.
“Much as I don’t care for the project, the City Council made a decision a couple years ago. What they wanted done, as I see it, has now been accomplished,” Councilman Larry Kramer said.
Mayor Pro Tem Sam Allevato said the council’s personal preferences did not matter and that the way Darmal purchased the land was “immaterial” to him.
“Nowhere else in the city where someone builds a single family home on a lot do we have this kind of review and jurisdiction … This is the first time that I know of that we’ve done this to anyone,” Allevato said. “I believe the property owner has followed the direction.”
Although the appeal failed to pass, Councilman Derek Reeve’s motion to support the residents’ $500 fee waiver for the appeal passed unanimously.
After the meeting, Jenkinson said it was unlikely the residents would seek legal action.