By Frank Gruber
I couldn’t help it. I had to stay up until the bitter non-end, until two in the morning, to watch the Planning Commission not decide what to do about Stephanie Barbanell’s and Jerry Bass’ six-foot fence and fourteen-foot hedge on Seaview Terrace.
But maybe it was worth it. I have a new hero: Commissioner Julie Lopez Dad.
I’m ready to eat crow. Students of the battles of Seaview Terrace -- and I understand that with part of the money the City is giving the School District under their new deal the District is establishing a Civics curriculum based on Seaview -- may remember that when in November I first reported that the Bass/Barbanell’s wanted a variance for their overlarge fence and hedge, I reported on a meeting I chanced upon between them and Commissioner Dad. [http://www.surfsantamonica.com/ssm_site/the_lookout/columns/FrankGruber/11_2003/11_03_03_Ungrateful_Greens_and_Fences_and_Hedges.htm]
Not resisting the impulse to employ the columnist’s stock in trade -- blithe cynicism -- I aired my suspicions that Commissioner Dad was giving advice to the Bass/Barbanell’s in advance of their upcoming hearing before the Zoning Administrator.
Well, maybe she was, but based on what she said at the Planning Commission hearing on the appeal of the ZA’s denial of the variance, Commissioner Dad would have told Ms. Barbanell and Mr. Bass to drop the whole thing and “tear down that fence!”
To my shock and awe, Commissioner Dad not only made the strongest case for the public interest at the hearing, but also at one crucial moment stood with her finger in the dike, preventing an inundation of the City’s efforts to build a more livable and open city.
Okay, so what happened?
Not much, in a certain sense. The seven commissioners deadlocked without a majority of four able to agree on anything, and at continued the matter.
Two commissioners, Ms. Dad and Terry O’Day, were ready to reject the variance outright, as the Commission has rejected all such attempts to wall-in front yards in the past.
Three commissioners, Arlene Hopkins, Barbara Brown and Jay Johnson, took the amazing position for public officials that the City should abrogate the rights of the public to traverse Seaview Terrace, which the public has by prescriptive easement, and allow the residents to create a gated community.
It’s hard to imagine a more striking betrayal of the public interest by three self-proclaimed social and environmental progressives.
The remaining two commissioners, Gwynne Pugh and Chair Darrell Clarke, were in the middle. Both gave appropriate weight to the public interest in maintaining an open and pedestrian friendly environment and access to the beach, and were unwilling to bend reality to find the facts necessary to grant the variance the Barbanell/Bass’s wanted. However, given what they perceived to be unique security problems near the beach, they wanted to craft a compromise that would give the Bass/Barbanell’s some leeway to build a fence higher than 42 inches in the front yard setback, but with conditions designed to preserve the openness of the walk street.
Pugh offered two possibilities. One was to allow a six-foot “transparent” wrought iron fence along the edge of the sidewalk (the location of the current fence), with shrubbery no higher than 42 inches. The problem with this “yard behind bars” approach came when Pugh and Clarke realized they could not make the required findings to justify it, because the security concerns the Bass/Barbanell’s have are not a unique feature of their property.
They also realized that this argument could then be used all over the city, wherever any property owner claimed that his or her neighborhood had a unique security problem (i.e., nearly every block of the city, if you listen to the people who live there), thus destroying the effectiveness of the City’s front-yard setback fence rules.
Commissioner Pugh’s second suggestion was more inventive. He noted that the one unique quality of the Bass/Barbanell property is that buildings on every other lot on the walk street already encroach in the 30 foot deep set back, typically to about eight feet from the edge of the sidewalk. The fact is, that given the narrowness of the walk street, a 30-foot setback (about 25 feet from the sidewalk) is too wide anyway. The charm of the walk street comes from the little gardens in front of the tight-knit buildings.
Commissioner Pugh’s idea was to allow the Bass/Barbanell’s to build a high fence that would more or less continue the façade line between the two adjacent structures. This would give them the security they said they needed, yet the front of the property would now be visually open to the public to the same extent as other properties on the street.
The interesting thing about this proposal is that it echoed the history of the site. In the 1914 original subdivision plan for Seaview Terrace, a center strip running fifteen feet on either side of the center line, i.e., to about ten feet from the edge of the sidewalk, was dedicated for “Park and Walk Purposes.”
Original Seaview Terrace Subdivision Map with Tract Map Language
In other words, when Seaview Terrace was still private (yet probably still today), the deeds prohibited property-owners from building where the Bass/Barbanell’s currently have their fence.
Regardless whether Commissioner Pugh was aware of this history when he made his proposal, which would have, in effect, restored the old covenant in place of the City’s setback requirement, it had a certain amount of sense. Given the unique location of the Bass/Barbanell house, the Commission might have been able to make the necessary findings, and it looked like Commissioners Pugh and Clarke might have rounded up at least two more votes from Commissioners O’Day and Johnson.
But the compromise didn’t happen.
You see, Barry Rosenbaum, the City Attorney liaison to the Planning Department, opined that if the Commission planned to grant a variance different from the one requested, it needed to hear from the applicants as to whether they would want the variance.
Fair enough. A bad idea, maybe, in this case, but fair enough.
Did the Bass/Barbanells accept this reasonable compromise that gave them what they said their family needed in the way of enhanced security, and only required them to “give up” the same narrow strip of front yard that all her neighbors now kept open?
What do you think? Around in the morning Stephanie Barbanell told the Commission that she was so upset she was having heart palpitations. (I had the feeling she had expected a different outcome.) She told them she was unhappy, that they didn’t understand that her family needed to enclose the entire yard. She rejected the compromise.
So there the Commission was. Stumped and stymied in the wee hours. Commissioner Hopkins asked for a continuance so that she could try to craft findings to justify the fence and hedge. Ultimately, Commissioners Clarke and Pugh joined the Gated Community 3 to vote to continue the matter, even though it was clear that the Bass/Barbanell’s did not have the four votes necessary to overturn the ZA’s ruling.
My new hero, Commissioner Dad, pointed out that the record would show that the findings Commissioner wanted could not be made.
* * *
In this whole miserable affair, perhaps the most distressing bit did not come from anyone who was at the hearing. The Bass/Barbanell’s solicited and obtained from Police Chief James Butts an email supporting their request for “a fence of sufficient height to discourage intruders.”
While Chief Butts tried to limit his opinion to the immediate circumstances of a walk street that police cannot patrol by squad car, his email represents a dramatic change in policy that needs to be addressed at the highest levels.
To my knowledge, going back to my years on the Planning Commission, the Police Department and the Planning Department were always in agreement in fence cases that to control crime in a neighborhood, it was better to increase “eyes on the street” than to build walls.
When it comes to crime and transients, everyone claims unique circumstances, notwithstanding that the crime rate is way down. In response to Ms. Barbanell’s claim that her neighborhood had unique security problems, Commissioners Dad and O’Day each pointed out that they lived in neighborhoods where people had been murdered.
I’ve never heard anyone testify that his or her neighborhood didn’t have a “homeless problem,” and there are many places in the city besides walk streets that are not accessible to police cars.
Yet, if we follow Chief Butts’ new logic, and let everyone with a “special case” build high fences and walls (which are of questionable utility anyway), we will lose the openness and civility that are the true barriers to criminal behavior, and which, in fact, have been part of the reason Santa Monica’s crime rate has decreased so substantially.
I remember when Seaview Terrace still had its high walls and fences. It was a dump. The empty lot and the empty house at the western end of the street are practically case studies for the “broken window” theory of crime.
The best thing that will happen to reduce crime on Seaview Terrace will be the opening of the recently approved apartment building on the vacant lot, a project Ms. Barbanell and Mr. Bass fought for years. This will bring activity to the walk street – hopefully bring it back to something like what was envisioned for the street back in 1914.
* * *
Congratulations to Susan McCarthy and John Deasy and their staffs for negotiating an agreement to defuse the crisis over school funding and the proposed Community for Excellent Public Schools ballot measure.
Of course they
couldn’t have done it without direction from City Council and the School Board,
and a general sense of goodwill. If,
over the past 30 years, more elected officials and administrators had shown
this kind of flexibility and imagination,