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In Defense of a Fence

By Mark McGuigan
Staff Writer

Nov 11 -- Residents of a quaint walk street near the beach tried Tuesday to save an illegal fence and hedge they claim helps protect a neighborhood under siege from sleeping vagrants and the occasional diaper thief.

According to residents of Seaview Terrace -- which is flanked by luxury hotels -- the six-foot-tall fence and 14-foot-high hedge that surrounds the property of Stephanie Barbanell and Jerry Bass is necessary to fight crime and safeguard the privacy of the couple’s family and friends.

“We’ve had vagrants sleeping on our lawn,” Bass told Zoning Administrator Amanda Schachter. “We’ve had hypodermic needles in our flower bed. We’ve had condoms on the lawn. We had our diapers stolen 15 years ago when our daughter was born.”

The height limit for a fence, wall or hedge in a front yard setback is 42 inches, according to the City code, a limit that all homeowners in the surrounding area complied with by cutting hedges and reducing fences and walls.

However, Bass and Barbanell maintain that their front yard is in fact not a front yard at all. The couple contends that the yard in question -- which fronts the walk street -- should be treated as a back yard and requires additional security to protect the family, their guests and clothesline from neighborhood crime.

“This front yard is really our back yard,” Bass said. “It’s where we play, it’s where we barbeque, it’s where we entertain guests. Our house is very small.”

But City officials contend that the yard’s orientation does in fact mark the area as being the front of the property, a point that Chris Harding -- the applicants’ attorney -- was unwilling to concede.

“We think that’s a debatable point,” Harding told Schachter, who raised the concern. “And this is not the only circumstance in Santa Monica where front yards function as a back yard.

“We don’t believe that one fence that runs the length of the property has a dramatic impact or even a significant impact on the light and air along this walk street,” he argued.

Seven members of the public, including longtime residents and the couple’s relatives, filed up to the podium to support the contentious fence.

Sister-in-law Irene Sandler painted a grim picture of an area terrorized by “derelicts,” “gang violence” and “even murders on Appian Way.”

Noting that although they “weren’t crazy about liquor outlets” -- a reference to Barbanell’s past objections to City permits granting liquor licenses -- Sandler hoped officials “would be for the little guy, not just the millionaires.”

“It is imperative to their lifestyle to have safety,” she added.

Sandy Tomkins, a resident of Seaview Terrace for 34 years and a long-time supporter of tall fences, told of his ongoing battle with the neighborhood homeless population.

“I have been fighting the homeless situation for 20-something years,” Tomkins said. “This summer is the worst I can recollect. Where I live, until we had three dogs in the last couple of years, the homeless always slept under our bushes right at our walkway.

“In the 34 years I’ve lived there, no officer has ever walked a beat down there unless there was a crime,” he said. “Never.”

One former resident likened the homeless problem to a form of infestation that had to be contained.

“It prevents the homeless from having a nest in one area, if you will, to attack an adjacent area,” he said before lending his full support to the couple’s fight to keep their fence in place.

The only objections to the variance, Harding said, were voiced in two letters received by the applicants in opposition to the fence. Two more letters supported their cause, he added.

In summarizing the key points of the opposing letters, City staff member Peter Blied noted that “there is a concern for light, air and ventilation as well as the view shed toward the coastline.”

Opponents, he added, also worried that the size of the hedge might cause future “unsightliness” if the foliage was ever to contract a life-threatening ailment.

Harding concluded the defense of his clients’ right to retain the oversized fence and looming hedge by urging staff to read a letter penned by Santa Monica Chief of Police James T. Butts, Jr. to planning staff on June 25.

According to Harding, Chief Butts pointed to the “unique safety and security issues significant to Seaview Terrace” and talked about how “Seaview Terrace is isolated from major thoroughfares because it’s a walk street that is not readily visible from Ocean Avenue or Appian Way.”

Barbanell and Bass must now await the City’s decision on whether to grant a variance or order that the fence and hedge be trimmed to a legal height.
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