The Burbank City Council Tuesday unanimously approved a controversial housing project in the Rancho equestrian neighborhood following fierce opposition from its horse-loving residents.
Residents say that the six-building, 23-unit complex will be built square in the heart of historic and critical equestrian thoroughfares, including the Mariposa Equestrian Bridge that serves as Burbank’s only equestrian entrance to Griffith Park and its many horse trails.
Developers Butterfly Gardens LLC — a three-person development team made up of Garen Gozumian, Charles Boyajian and Garo Manjikian — plan to demolish what were once commercial stables, barns and open horse corrals to accommodate the new residential housing site on Mariposa Drive just off of Riverside Drive, city officials said.
Councilmembers and city staff firmly reminded the public that state law has hindered their ability to meaningfully block housing projects that plan to sell or rent 10% affordable units, as is the case with the Mariposa project.
Under state policy — known as Senate Bill 35 — cities that haven’t met the state’s lofty housing goals must grant a “streamlined approval” to housing developments with plans for affordable housing, so long as that development meets certain land-use requirements and design standards. The former City Council has already confirmed that the site meets its land-use obligations.
“Neither I, nor the planning staff, nor the City Council may exercise discretion with regard to an SB 35 project,” said Community Development Director Patrick Prescott during the Tuesday City Council meeting.
Directing his comments to the Council, he added, “Your role tonight is to determine if this project complies with objective development standards. You may hear this evening questions about whether or not the site is eligible for SB 35. That determination was made by the then sitting City Council on Dec. 13, 2022, that it is eligible.
“You, I and the planning staff do not have to like the law — and, in fact, the law leaves a lot to dislike — but we do have to obey that law,” Prescott said.
A presentation from city staff quickly made it clear that the project was designed in line with Burbank’s requirements, meaning approval was unavoidable.
Councilmembers spent much of the meeting engaging the public and hearing their concerns. Stakeholders sent more than 100 emails to the Council, and about 40 spoke during the hearing, overwhelmingly in opposition to the project.
During the public hearing, many referenced an incident that involved a woman being thrown from her horse into the Los Angeles River basin. Numerous other riders have fallen from their horses in recent years, some near the future development site.
Riders expressed concern during the meeting that construction noise could scare the horses, leading to an increase in such incidents.
“How is the city planning to mitigate the danger to equestrians and their horses in the convergence of industrial machinery, construction trucks, autos and pedestrians on this small street that was never intended for such a dense coalescence of traffic?” said Rancho resident Gail Just.
City planners said that the developer is required to submit a construction plan to the city, addressing items related to the safety of horses and pedestrians, and noise mitigation efforts.
Mariposa developers responded, saying they plan to dedicate about 5,300 square feet of land on South Mariposa Street to be used by the city for street widening and a future equestrian trail connection. Developers assured residents that the planned separation between construction and equestrian thoroughfares would dampen the impact of construction on the community.
“This is one of the most significant dedications that I have seen on any project I’ve worked on,” said Olivia Joncich, a senior planner with Rand Paster and Nelson, the law firm representing Butterfly Gardens LLC.
In addition to worries that construction or future traffic will endanger horses, residents and critics of the development argued that the project site does not meet site eligibility requirements for an SB 35 project.
“This project does not have the requisite 75% of urban use perimeter as required by SB 35,” said Jason Beaman, an attorney representing a group of Rancho stakeholders, who issued a letter of opposition to the Council. “This area is a rural pocket, and it should not be considered urban-use under SB 35.”
Joncich and Burbank Associate Planner Joseph Onyebuchi made the opposite point.
“We want to reiterate one of the standards that have been in question in several public comments. We are reiterating staff’s analysis that the entirety of the site is surrounded by qualifying urban uses,” Joncich said during the Tuesday meeting.
Following Joncich’s statements, Gozumian — a member of the development team — directed his comments toward Rancho residents.
“We understand that the safety of the horses in the neighborhood during and after construction is a top priority for many in the Rancho. The Rancho has a distinct feel to it. … The streets are lined with California sycamore trees, and the hills of Griffith Park are visible in the distance,” Gozumian said.
“The Rancho is not exclusively for or exclusive to equestrians. It doesn’t matter whether you own a horse or not, everyone is welcome in the Rancho. … There is no reason to think that the future residents won’t choose to live here for these same special characteristics, while also respecting their equestrian neighbors and equestrian safety,” he added.
Several residents clarified that they were speaking out of love for their existing way of life.
“I moved here to Burbank to be closer to my horse, the barns and the trails. … The country life near the city. Perfect. That is until developers began to encroach on our equestrian haven,” said Veronica Christianson, 35-year Burbank resident, who asked the Council to authorize the city to conduct a safety study of the Mariposa Street area.
Jamie Keyser, president of the Burbank Chamber of Commerce, endorsed the project, calling it well-suited for the neighborhood.
“We all know Burbank is in dire need of housing, and I believe most people are on board until it comes to their neighborhood,” said Keyser.
“The current area is an eyesore and this project offers sustainable, dedicated land which will provide a public benefit to the neighborhood and beautify the neighborhood,” Keyser added, pointing out that the project will bring with it a wider roadway, sidewalks and a new bridle trail.
Past failures on the part of the city to approve necessary housing is behind SB 35’s forced imposition of high-density housing on the Rancho neighborhood.
“We didn’t build the housing that we needed to for decades. That’s on us; our prior Council, our Planning Commission and our staff,” said Vice Mayor Nick Schultz, referencing the city’s failure to meet its housing quotas, which led to the imposition of SB 35 policy on Burbank.
The Council denied a similar SB 35 application for the Pickwick project last year, triggering a series of lawsuits against the city by developer Matt Waken, the law firm YIMBY and others. The city ultimately settled with Waken, whose project is set to be built across the street from the Los Angeles Equestrian Center.
Ultimately, the Council expressed a responsibility to the city not to embroil it again in expensive litigation. The hearing was marked by fierce concern and opposition from the public.
When the time came to raise the motion to approve the project, the mayor requested it amid cries from a full audience. The moment was so intense that he was met with a brief silence from the dais. No one wanted to bring forward a motion.
Councilmembers each individually expressed concerns for the project and communicated their regrets to the public. Still, the option before them was to either approve the project to the contempt of the public or face another wave of expensive litigation with developers. Staff told the Council that denial of the application would be illegal, as it meets all requirements under state law.
“If we decide to vote no against this project, we will have Pickwick all over again,” said Councilwoman Zizette Mullins.
Finally, Schultz brought forward the motion, adding to it provisions to study ways to mitigate the impact of construction. It was passed unanimously.
First published in the July 29 print issue of the Burbank Leader.