Judith Freed didn't spend much time thinking about the Pacific Palisades Civic League during the first 10 years she lived in her hillside house above Sunset Boulevard. Neither did Gary Nash, who lived down the street. Nor did Lenard Pick, who said that for months after he moved next door to Nash during the summer of 1985, "I didn't even know what the Civic League was."
The three had much in common with the scores of other property owners in Tract 9300, which consists of 4,000 lots that cover most of the Palisades.
Only about 100 of those owners paid the $15 annual membership dues this year. There's no telling if others have scrutinized the fine print in their deeds that explains the league's potential to affect their lives: It has the power to regulate the appearance and design of every building in the tract.
But these days, Freed, Nash, Pick and many of their neighbors, seeking to reduce the scale of a nearby condominium, have made the league a topic of conversation and a target of protest, dragging the organization out of obscurity and into Santa Monica Superior Court.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 9, 1986 Home Edition Westside Part 9 Page 4 Column 2 Zones Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
A story about the Pacific Palisades Civic League in Sunday's Westside section incorrectly stated that plans for a controversial condominium were changed to add gables to the roof. The building approved by the Civic League contained those gables. However, the plans were changed to add one foot in ceiling height to each of three stories to accommodate air conditioning ducts. Removing a gable has been suggested as one way of scaling down the resulting increase in height.
In recent weeks, the league's unwillingness to take on legal battles against builders who don't follow its rules, its domination by real estate agents and architects and its low profile all have been criticized by homeowner's groups around the Palisades.
Members of the league's board counter that they have accomplished much with quiet, behind-the-scenes negotiations. They acknowledge that the organization has shortcomings, but blame them on the community, which has failed to provide support in the form of money and donated time.
There is agreement only on this: The league has not used all the power that it has, and no one is just sure how much power that is. Finding out how much there is could have a huge impact on the future shape of the Palisades, where residents boast that their cliffside community has maintained a distinct village atmosphere even though it is part of the sprawling city of Los Angeles.
The deeds in tract 9300 forbid owners to build or remodel structures on their lots without the league's written approval "as to outward appearance and design."
The league's role has not been more clearly spelled out in the 43 years since its creation. The private group meets once a month at the local library to review building applications but has never established development guidelines. There is no office; there is no staff.
Though every owner in the tract is eligible to join and vote for the 12-member governing board, they are not required to do so. The board mails brochures every few years, when its budget allows, to alert property owners to its existence. But "I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people throw those out without ever reading them," league President Doug Uhler said.
As a tool for ensuring that the Palisades' identity endures, "the Civic League is a sleeping giant," said Ronald Dean, president of the Pacific Palisades Residents Assn., a homeowners group representing about 1,700 families.
"These people want us to have powers that we want to have, too," said Heinz Meier, a member of the league's governing board and chairman of the committee that screens all submitted designs. "But it's foolish if you don't have them to assume that you do. It's very unpopular to admit what you may not have."
Such questions were raised when controversyerupted over a 71-foot-high, 18-unit condominium project under construction on the north side of Sunset Boulevard near Muskingum Avenue. The neighbors on the ridge above contend that the building will block their ocean views and invade their privacy when the dwellings are complete and occupied.
About a month ago, they say, they became aware of the deed restrictions that grant the Civic League the right to decide whether to permit certain designs to be built. The league had approved preliminary plans for the condo.
The neighbors say they had no grounds to contest the approval. But then the condo developer, Alex Furlotti, erected a wooden frame that left no doubt that the building would be three feet higher than shown on his plans--enough, the neighbors say, to blot out the last sliver of ocean blue visible from their back windows and patios.
The neighbors became upset when the league did not take steps to force Furlotti to build only what was authorized. They also said they were angry that Uhler was helping the developer by asking nearby residents whether Furlotti could rent space in their yards to store lumber.
The neighbors have not sued the league. Instead, they formed the Mid-Sunset Residents Assn., elected Nash their president and successfully pressured the league to lend its name to their cause in court.
On Oct. 20, Superior Court Judge David M. Rothman will hear the joint request for a preliminary injunction to block further construction.