RANCHO PALOS VERDES — Steven Tondre built a shed alongside his home more than a year ago so he could lock up ladders and garden tools--tools like his neighbors', which he said were used by intruders to break into the neighbors' house as they slept.
"I've been burglarized six times, subjected to police chasing an armed criminal through my backyard and confronted (by) a thief trying to steal my car in my driveway," said the 38-year-old electronics engineer, whose home on Peninsula Verde Drive abuts busy Western Avenue. "It's hard to have your life threatened and not be able to do anything about it."
But if personal security was his intention, the result of Tondre's do-it-yourself project has been a running battle with the city over building-code enforcement that is about to go to court--an unusual event even in a city that admits it is aggressive about such infractions.
Built without a permit, the shed--which is 16 feet long, 6 feet wide and 6 feet high--was spotted by a code-enforcement officer driving by Tondre's home in September, 1984. Tondre later paid a $400 fee to apply for a variance to the city's 10-foot setback requirement, which was needed because the shed is only a few feet from the wall that marks his property line. The variance was denied by the Planning Commission and the City Council.
Exchanges of letters--some of them voluminous--and meetings--some of them heated--have led nowhere. Tondre says that one solution offered by the city, a reduction in the required setback to eight feet, would still force him to make the shed "a foot wide" and unusable.
In the latest round, Tondre is being prosecuted for a misdemeanor violation of the city code for putting up an illegal building and refusing to remove it. The case goes to trial on Feb. 11 in Torrance Municipal Court.
The city filed seven misdemeanor code-violation complaints against various property owners last year, but only one went to trial, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Don Wagner, who prosecuted code-enforcement cases for the city until December. He could not recall the outcome of that case.
For his part, Tondre has filed a $1-million damage suit against the city and two code-enforcement officials, charging that they trespassed on his property in order to inspect it. The city is trying to get the suit dismissed and a hearing will be held Tuesday in Torrance Superior Court.
"I am not denying that I violated the code as it is written," said Tondre, who also admits that he built the shed without a permit. "But there is a variance process and they're in violation of their own code by not giving me a proper variance. My reason for building the shed is stronger than their reasons for denying me having it."
He contends that others in his neighborhood have sheds--with and without permits--and that he is being singled out for selective enforcement over something that no one but city officials object to. No neighbors appeared at the two public meetings to discuss his variance request.
But the city says that Tondre does not meet all legal requirements for a variance. Specifically, the city said Tondre's property is no different than his neighbors' and he does not need the shed to enjoy the same property rights.
Created Own Hardship
"He built a shed in the side yard, and we are simply prohibiting construction, for fire and safety access around the house primarily," said City Councilman Mel Hughes. "He had other locations to do this, and he chose not to. He knew he needed a permit, and he ignored the law. The hardship he created was purely of his own making."
However, City Councilman Robert Ryan, the only council member who supported Tondre's variance application, said the city is "being a little aggressive" about the case. He said the council could have given Tondre a variance legally "because of his feelings that there was a threat to his property by living on Western Avenue."
"The shed was not bothering anyone in the world," Ryan said. "It only bothered a building inspector."
City Manager Donald F. Guluzzy said the city is "pro-active" about code enforcement. "This city was incorporated because of zoning and protecting the quality of life," he said. "The development code is taken seriously."
Ann Negendank, acting environmental services director, said the city enforces the code largely on a complaint basis, receiving about 30 a month. But there also is a roving enforcement officer who drives the city on weekends, removing illegal garage sale and real estate signs and reporting any suspicious construction activities. Officials said most code problems are resolved through meetings with violators.
Letter From Guluzzy