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Return to Seaview Terrace

By Frank Gruber

It would be an exaggeration to say that the town was riveted, but back in 2003 and 2004 I wrote often about various dramas taking place on Seaview Terrace, the little walk street that connects Ocean Avenue to Appian Way north of Pico Boulevard.  The action revolved around two applications for approvals that residents of Seaview had filed with the City's planning department.

Seaview is back in the news.  Residents have sued the City of Santa Monica to privatize the street, and the City Council may take the drastic action of agreeing to close off the street to the public -- without holding a public hearing.

A little history.  Back in 2003 and 2004 the controversies on Seaview Terrace involved an application by longtime anti-development activist Stephanie Barbanell and her husband Jerry Bass for a variance to allow them to keep their 14-foot high front yard hedge and fence.  Some of their neighbors, including their next-door neighbors Sally Frautschy and Greg Cole, opposed the application.  The Planning Commission ultimately rejected the variance. 

The hedge, however, received an inadvertent reprieve, when the City Council, in the midst of the hedge-wars in 2004, passed a citywide moratorium on fence and hedge enforcement.  The moratorium took effect after the Planning Commission's decision to deny the variance, but before the commission could make the denial official by issuing the required paperwork.

In the meantime Ms. Frautschy and Mr. Cole needed design approval to build an addition to their house, and various neighbors, including the Barbanell/Basses, opposed it.  The Planning Commission, reviewing an appeal from an approval by the Architectural Review Board, approved the project.

Last week I learned that I have missed a story about Seaview that's been developing for two years, ever since a resident of Seaview, Greg Brogger, filed a lawsuit against the City.  The purpose of the suit was to "quiet title" on the strip of land running down Seaview that is open to the public as a walk street.  Mr. Brogger contends that the City has no right to claim an easement for public use on this property, notwithstanding that Seaview Terrace was laid out in the original subdivision map in 1914 as a 30-foot wide easement for "park and walk" purposes, and that Seaview has been open to the public since then.

The City responded by saying that Mr. Brogger had to include all the other residents of the street as plaintiffs, because it wouldn't make sense for the City to have to deal with the questions raised in the suit more than once.  Nor could the City reach an effective settlement if all the residents weren't on board.  The court agreed, and required Mr. Brogger to obtain the consent of the other residents to join the suit as plaintiffs, which he did.

A little more history.  The residents of Seaview Terrace have long sought to keep the public off their street.  In the early '90s, they put a gate up at each end, but the City forced its removal.  (The fence -- without the gate -- is still there.) 

Site of former gate at entrance to Seaview Terrace (Photo by Frank Gruber

One of the sideshows of the hearings over the Barbanell/Bass hedge in 2004 was Ms. Barbanell's argument that the street should be private, in which case she might not need her fence.  (What was a shock at the time was that there were two planning commissioners who agreed that it would be a good idea to create a gated community in the middle of the beach tract.)

What's happened in the current litigation is that the Seaview residents and the City have had settlement negotiations.  The City Council deals with litigation in closed session, but the parameters of the proposed settlement have become known.  It would allow the residents to close off Seaview Terrace after dark.  According to court documents, nearly all the residents are willing to agree to this resolution.

But "nearly all" is not enough.  The City will not settle unless all the plaintiffs agree, and according to a motion the attorney for the plaintiffs filed, a conflict has arisen among his clients.  One of them refuses to agree to the compromise settlement.  This plaintiff, Joyce Syme, has now retained her own lawyer.

Without a settlement, the case was supposed to go to trial Sept. 29, and in anticipation of that, the City Attorney's office began to collect evidence to prove that the public had used the street for the five consecutive years required for a prescriptive easement.  (I became aware of the lawsuit when a resident of an apartment building on the beach who often walks through Seaview Terrace contacted me after being asked for information about his habits with regard to the street by an investigator from the City.) 

There won't be a trial on the 29th, however, because the court, hoping for a settlement, has scheduled another settlement conference for that date.

What do I think?  Well, I don't know about thinking, but I hope that the settlement doesn't happen, and that the case goes to trial, because the City should have a strong case, and we shouldn't be in the business of gating off streets in Santa Monica, not even at night.  This would be a bad precedent.

There is a bigger issue, however.  It would be a travesty of democracy if the City Council signs off on this settlement without holding a public hearing.  I understand the wisdom of using closed sessions to strategize about litigation, or even for settling cases that only involve money, but when the issue is an important one of public policy -- the land use element of the City's general plan calls for the area near the beach to be open to pedestrians -- I cannot see how the council can make a decision without hearing from the public.

There are risks involved with going to court, but the City Attorney can explain them, and the council can evaluate them -- in public.

The details of the settlement will also be important.  The public should know, for instance, how the council can be sure any gates will be kept open (not merely unlocked, but open) when they are supposed to be open.

The people have the right to know.

(I'll take this opportunity to plug my book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, which contains all the 2003-04 columns about Seaview Terrace.  The book is available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City Books in Santa Monica, from City Image Press.

* * *

Tomorrow, the autumnal equinox, will also the first celebration of a new celebration originating in Santa Monica that may sweep the consciousness of the world.  It's called "Tree-Hugging Day," and it's the invention of local activist Jerry Rubin and his wife Marissa.  One can celebrate Tree-Hugging Day anywhere, but ground-zero for the first THD will be at noon in Palisades Park, just north of the entrance to the Pier.  For more information, go to Mr. Rubin's website []

Santa Monica has given the world much in the way of culture, from beach volleyball to Xtreme skateboarding.  Perhaps Tree-Hugging Day will be our next contribution.

* * *

I didn't know Michael Rosenthal, the publisher of The Mirror who died recently, well.  We only met a few times, and always at public events.  But there must be a special place in Heaven for publishers of local newspapers, and Mr. Rosenthal's family and colleagues at his paper have my condolences and best wishes.


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