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Fear of Homeless Fuels Opposition to Beach Club

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

April 3 -- Beachfront homeowners near 415 PCH may enjoy an uninterrupted view of the ocean, but when they turn around, the scorched palm trees and singed brush on the Palisades Bluffs are sobering reminders of their homeless neighbors across the road.

The charred hillside, neighbors say, is the result of homeless campfires gone out of control, and the problem doesn’t stop there.

War stories of “pilferage,” break-ins, assault and vandalism are common among residents along the stretch of beach near the northern end of Santa Monica.

They fear things will get worse when the City renovates what is left of a 1930s seaside mansion built by William Randolph Hearst for his paramour Marion Davies into a beach club for the masses.

That’s why they’ve hired legal help to represent them at City Hall.

It’s not that the high-end property owners want to keep the beach all to themselves, they say, and it’s not that they don’t have compassion for the homeless.

They just want the City to understand that they’re going to have to live with the consequences if it builds “a haven for the homeless,” as more than one neighbor calls the City’s plan.

“We all would like to see this work out,” said homeowner Jonathan Ornstein, adding that he and his neighbors want to “make the best of what we don’t see as a great situation.”

Although lawyers for the Palisades Beach Homeowners Association say that the homeless aren’t why residents keep insisting on conditions and guarantees from the City, concessions already made in response to meetings with the homeowners seem designed to beef up security and prohibit public feedings at 415 PCH.

Even so, when the homeowners speak for themselves, they become excited and voluble when the subject of their transient neighbors comes up.

Ornstein, who lives near the planned project, faults the City for not enforcing laws regulating behavior by the homeless and fears his family won’t be protected from more incidents like a past break-in by a man who threatened his life.

“I had a physical altercation with a homeless man in broad daylight in my home,” he said. “He threatened to kill me at the top of his lungs in front of my kids.

“I’m not some mad ‘I want my privacy’ electric fence type,” Ornstein said. “I care about safety… Safety has got to be an issue.”

Like Ornstein, 40-year resident Phyllis Nugent said she doesn’t have a problem if the City “does the right thing” with the project.

But recent emails indicate there have been break-ins in the neighborhood, Nugent said. And her family has gotten used to “pilferage,” she said. Her son offers the homeless folks across the highway rewards for the missing items and “things come back,” she said.

Police periodically sweep the illegal encampments, Nugent said, but the homeless keep coming back.

“It’s not that we’re not sympathetic to them,” Nugent said. She can understand why the homeless would be attracted to the rehabbed estate.

“Why wouldn’t people come and be comfortable,” she said.

Joe Melchione, who owns the condos just north of 415 PCH, is optimistic about the City’s plans.

“I want to see this project succeed,” Melchione said, adding that Director of Cultural and Community Affairs Barbara Stinchfield is “very good at coming up with conditions” that address the residents’ concerns.

Conditions include fencing around the pool and picnic areas, night guards, security cameras, moving the restroom to a staffed entry area and reducing the size of rooms for public gatherings.

But, like his neighbors, Melchione wants to be sure the conditions are enforced.

He’s not convinced that the City, as project manager, can be counted on to monitor itself.

“We want some reasonable independent enforcement,” Melchione said. “If the City enforces (its rules) OK, if not, there’s going to be a free for all.

“Camping is prohibited on the beach, period,” he said, but added that the law hasn’t stopped the homeless from camping on the bluffs. Melchione pointed to the vandalism of the run-down estate as an example of the City’s neglect.

He also mentions three fires that have broken out in the bluffs over the past several years.

“If the wind had been blowing offshore that night, we might be talking about the old Marion Davies estate,” he said, referring to the latest fire. “One fire, and it’s gone.”

Still, “if everybody works together, we can come up with something,” Melchione said. “I want to see this project succeed.”

But not everyone is so conciliatory.

Ornstein, while making it clear that he was speaking as an individual, not as a neighborhood representative, seemed to hint at trouble to come.

If the City doesn’t agree to a “stipulated agreement,” he said, the EIR “has a number of loopholes you could drive a truck through.”

It would be all right with him if the neighbors slowed the project down, or even stopped it, winding up with a parking lot next door, Ornstein said.

It remains to be seen whether his extreme view is shared by his neighbors, whose attorneys are trying to reach an agreement with the City before Wednesday night’s Planning Commission meeting.

While acknowledging that the City has responded to homeowner concerns by adding a number of conditions to secure the site, neighbors worry that the City will cut back security when the budget gets tight.

“It will become another run-down city project,” Ornstein said, “worse than what they have now.”

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