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
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
Not much, in a
certain sense. The seven commissioners
deadlocked without a majority of four able to agree on anything, and at
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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
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.
* * *
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,