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Seaview Terrace: The Peyton Place of Planning

By Frank Gruber

I don't know if the best metaphor would be the layers of an onion or those nesting Russian dolls that symbolize enigmas wrapped in riddles, but the more I look into the issue of the fence and hedge at 16 Seaview Terrace, the more interesting it gets.

As Lookout readers know, local no-growth and anti-alcohol activists Jerry Bass and Stephanie Barbanell have applied for a variance to keep the six-foot fence and fourteen-foot hedge that separates their front yard from Seaview Terrace.

Bass and Barbanell are the only property owners on the walk street that runs from Ocean Avenue to Appian Way who have decided to fight a recent order from the City to conform their fences to the zoning law's limit of 42 inches. To represent them, Bass and Barbanell have hired the law firm of Harding, Larmore, Kutcher & Kozal, which is best known locally for its representation of developers.

Bass and Barbanell had their hearing before the Zoning Administrator last Tuesday. ("In Defense of a Fence," Nov. 12) It will be a month or so before the Z.A. gives her decision, but that doesn't mean that Seaview Terrace will be unheard from during that time.

Which is not surprising, given that Seaview Terrace has never been, during the past 15 years, a quiet place when it comes to planning. With instigation from Barbanell, the residents of the little street have protested nearly anything being built nearby, including hotels and restaurants (and their liquor licenses), the rebuilding of the Sea Castle apartments, the remodeling of nearby houses, and, perhaps most tenaciously, a condominium project at the corner of Seaview and Appian Way that is now being developed as apartments.

During that time -- and I am writing this as a former member of the Planning Commission who heard some of these matters in various stages -- one could always count on Barbanell and ten or twelve of her legionnaires showing up at a hearing to make whatever argument they could to stop or slow down whatever the plan was.

What has always been consistent were the group's loyalty to each other and their inventiveness in devising subjective arguments to counter plans that objectively satisfied all legal criteria. When I say "subjective," I mean vague and generalized complaints about "scale and massing," views, and sea breezes, as well as amateur hunches about soils, anecdotal accounts about crime, and hysteria about drink.

Barbanell hasn't been alone, but she's exemplified a type who is familiar to anyone involved in Santa Monica politics and planning. Rating their own convenience above everything else, they are SMFCs -- "Santa Monicans Fearful of Change" -- and they have had a huge impact.

When certain City Council members and Planning Commissioners talk about how they represent the "residents," it's the noisy SMFCs they are talking about, not your typically reasonable "live and let live" Santa Monican.

When typical Santa Monicans want to build additions to their houses, and they can't get straight answers from planning staff about what they can or can't do, or they are strung along through six months of design review, the reason is the paranoia that SMFCs have contributed to the system.

Mind you, we're not talking about building tanneries or rendering plants. In the vast majority of cases SMFCs oppose projects that are consistent with the zoning and other regulations our elected representatives have enacted after due process and consideration.

Anyway, back to Seaview. Apparently the unanimity among the Seaview residents is no longer. I found this out when I first started to talk to residents about the fence issue. Several broke with Barbanell over the issue of the Viceroy Hotel's liquor license. Barbanell has pursued the Viceroy relentlessly since it opened, protesting that they didn't have a license or the proper City permit to serve alcohol around the pool.

As a result of Barbanell's crusade, the Viceroy has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars reacquiring permits that any fair person would have thought they had already by inheriting the operation of the site's previous hotel.

Apparently, even given the politics of Seaview Terrace, Barbanell went too far on this one. The residents I talked to thought it was ludicrous to pursue the Viceroy, as if apple martinis at the pool had anything to do with the residents' problems with inebriates on the beach. When Barbanell persisted in representing herself as representing Seaview residents, one resident told me she went to the effort of sending the planning department a letter saying that Barbanell did not have her proxy.

When in August the Planning Commission granted the Viceroy's request for a new conditional use permit, Barbanell was the only resident to speak in opposition. ("Planning Commission Approves Alcohol Permits for Union Hotel," August 22, 2003)

Various residents of Seaview may have disagreed with Barbanell about the Viceroy, but that wasn't personal. What's happening on Seaview now is.

As I wrote last week, the next door neighbors of Bass and Barbanell to the east, Greg Cole, who previously joined with Barbanell in her activities against the multi-unit building at the corner of Seaview and Appian Way, and Sally Frautschy, have written letters to the planning department opposing the fence variance. Other neighbors and property owners are supporting the Bass/Barbanells.

But that's just the half of it. Seaview Terrace solidarity has crumbled completely over an addition the Cole/Frautschys want to build in the backyard of their property. While this project -- to add a garage and about 1,000 square feet of living space to a single-family house in an R3, multi-family, zone -- did not need discretionary development review, it does need design review, and when the Cole/Frautschys presented the project to the Architectural Review Board last August, Jerry Bass led the opposition.

The arguments against were the usual hyperbolic generalities over "size, scale, and massing," and "air, sky, sunlight and ocean breezes," even though the project is considerably smaller than what could be legally built, and -- and this is classic -- the addition will not be as tall as the second story Bass and Barbanell added to their house several years ago.

It is additionally ironic that Bass argued that the Cole/Frautschy addition would violate view corridors given that he wants to keep his fourteen-foot hedge, which truly does interfere not only with the view as one walks toward the ocean, but also a fifteen-foot wide easement for "walk and park purposes" that runs along the center line of Seaview Terrace. This easement, and a parallel one on the other side of the street, indicate that the historical plan for Seaview Terrace was to have 30 feet of clear, unobstructed space between the houses.

Despite Bass' pleas, the ARB approved the Cole/Frautchy addition -- on its first viewing, which these days is highly unusual and a real testament to the quality of the design. But the indefatigable opponents have appealed the approval to the Planning Commission. The appeal, nearly four months after the ARB approval, is on Wednesday night's Planning Commission agenda.

And that's why people are frustrated with the planning process in Santa Monica.

Readers interested in the ARB appeal for 18 Seaview Terrace can read the planning staff report.
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