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Walling In and Walling Out
Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. -- Ronald Reagan, 1987.
By Frank Gruber
One of the great things about writing a column in a small city is that given the small cast of characters there is a never ending supply of irony.
Last week I found out that Stephanie Barbanell and Jerry Bass, two residents who are among the city's heavy-duty code enforcers when it comes to other peoples' properties, were themselves seeking a variance to the City's rules against overly tall front yard fences and hedges.
As if that weren't enough irony, I found out this week, when I went to City Hall to look at the file on the variance application, that Barbanell and Bass have hired the law firm of Harding, Larmore, Kutcher & Kozal to represent them in the matter.
That's right -- the same Harding, Larmore, Kutcher & Kozal who are bêtes noires, the veritable ogres, the princes of darkness, etc., of Santa Monica's no-growthers.
The very law firm (HLKK) that advertises on this page!
The very same law firm that includes on the front page of its website, a picture of Le Merigot Hotel, the hotel Barbanell and Bass fought for so many years.
This is all great for me. Now if anyone says that I'm in the thrall of HLKK because they advertise here I can just smile, and say, "of course I'm in their thrall -- they're Stephanie Barbanell's lawyers."
Oh well. Barbanell and Bass are going to need all the high quality lawyering they can get if they're going to win their variance. The law is clear about the 42-inch limit on front yard fences, and significant variances to it are unheard of.
When I was on the Planning Commission, 1995-1999, we had a few fence cases. No one from the City could remember anyone getting a variance of more than six inches. This is an issue, by the way, on which the "new" Planning Commission that took over after 1999 agrees with the old one. The otherwise unlamented Kelly Olsen, for instance, took a strong position in favor of preserving the open vistas the 42-inch rule is designed to protect.
The City strongly favors open, pedestrian-friendly streets and from a security standpoint, the police have always been in favor of open sight lines and neighborly "eyes on the street."
Fact is, it's hard to obtain any variance. To get one, a property owner has to persuade the Zoning Administrator, or the Planning Commission on appeal, to find all of a long series of facts. These findings must include that there are exceptional characteristics of the property that distinguish it from other properties in the vicinity, and that the variance would not conflict with the general intent and purposes of the zoning law or the City's General Plan.
In practice, unless there are unusual topographical features, such as a hillside, it's hard to make a finding for exceptional characteristics. As for fences, since the General Plan is full of paeans to pedestrian-friendliness, and, specifically in the residential part of the Land Use Element, to the "continuity of street frontage," variance seekers have had a hard time showing that walling in their front yards is not in conflict with public policy.
Barbanell and Bass may have an even harder time than usual, because they live in the "Oceanfront District" where the General Plan says the goal should be to "enhance east-west streets, view corridors, and pedestrian access-ways to the beach."
Their house is on Seaview Terrace, an east-west walk street.
I don't in fact mean to obsess on the Barbanell's and Bass' application for a variance -- okay, maybe I do -- but sometimes particular cases provide, in addition to juicy gossip, a lens for viewing issues of general interest.
One of Robert Frost's most quoted lines is "Good fences make good neighbors," but what most people neglect to mention when they use the quote is that Frost, as the writer of the poem, is skeptical about fences. After quoting his crusty neighbor on fences and neighbors, Frost goes on to wonder:
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
Seaview Terrace is a special street. It's a walk street that connects Ocean Avenue to a charming flight of steps that leads to the beach. Whoever developed it obviously did so with some care, with the idea of creating a little community focused on the narrow path. The very name, "Seaview," bespeaks openness and transparency.
Yet at some point people started fencing themselves in -- purportedly because they were fearful of crime. One property owner built a six-foot high cinder block wall. But the fencing in didn't stop with physical walls. The residents, under Barbanell's leadership, fought every development in the area, from hotels and restaurants to a new apartment building that a developer planned for the vacant lot at the beach end of the block.
For what purpose? At the same time the residents were complaining that their rundown neighborhood was overrun with vagrants and criminals, they were complaining about anyone who wanted to invest in the neighborhood to make it better.
The file on the Bass/Barbanell application contains letters opposing the variance from the next door neighbors. The letters dispute the specific reasons Bass and Barbanell have advanced to support their application, namely, their concerns about privacy and security, but the paragraphs that most interested me were a couple that eloquently addressed the bigger, Frostian "walling in or walling out" issue that lies at the heart of why cities like Santa Monica try to foster community by restricting the height of fences.
Apparently, these next door neighbors used to join with Barbanell and Bass in their obsessions about development and crime. But last month they were among the Seaview Terrace neighbors who complied with the City's order to lower their fences, and already this has caused something of a change of heart. To quote from one letter:
"Having properties walled, fenced and hedged off has grossly diminished the beauty of [Seaview] Terrace according to the older residents we talked to (Mrs. Estelle Seeger, Cora of Cora's coffee shop fame, our neighbor Elaine Anderson) who knew it in its former splendor. ... Having this issue forced upon us and taking the fences/walls down has caused many of us to readjust our perspective. The older residents are right. The high fences, hedges and walls should come down."I can't say it any better than that.
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