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Art or an Eyesore? : When one couple's treasure is another's trash, it's up to city officials or homeowners' associations to determine what is in good taste. Those involved in disputes find it difficult to love thy neighbor.


Your right to wear a mint-green polyester leisure suit ends where it meets my eye.

--Fran Lebowitz

In 1985, Bob Miller decided that it would be fun to paint his Costa Mesa house lime green and orange, accented with a tick-tack-toe pattern and other unconventional designs. It made a good, light-hearted story, a fine little bonbon to break the usual rhythm of war, politics and global strife. Undoubtedly, it made a lot of readers smile.

But not Miller's neighbors. To them, the garish paint job was like a slap, a screaming bolt of citrus and doodles in the middle of rows of conventional color. It may have been Miller's house, but they had to look at it. They complained angrily. Miller eventually painted the house gray.

Thursday in Laguna Beach, the city's Design Review Board, six people appointed by the City Council to decide whether building projects are legal and appropriate to their surroundings, took a more tolerant view of home art and told Marie Forde that she and her husband Arnold can fill their pine tree with old water heaters and house trailers--as long as they do their best to keep the neighbors from seeing it.

It was the latest salvo in the is-it-art? vs. there-goes-the-neighborhood battle that has raged since man first burrowed into a hillside and started drawing on the walls. And the question, as always, was: where does your right of free visual expression end and my right not to look at it begin?

In the Orange County suburban sprawl, where tract homes often are the norm, a handful of such flamboyant squabbles have surfaced in recent years. Among them:

* In Costa Mesa, Sam Gregory has had a running cat-and-mouse game going with the city over his plans to build a castle-like house, complete with a rooftop swimming pool, an unusual carport and a moat. So far, the city has found no sections in the municipal codes that prevent Gregory from completing his project, but the local homeowners' association has not been happy, contending that the castle is an eyesore.

* In Newport Beach, an eight-year legal battle was finally settled out of court over the question of whether a homeowner could install a basketball hoop over his garage door.

* In Irvine, the slow pace of construction on the home of Victor Ganish irked the neighbors. Ganish had been remodeling his home for four years, turning it into a kind of baroque castle. In response to complaints from neighbors, the city passed its Residence Remodeling Law, which requires that all remodeling work on a house be completed within a year of the issuance of a work permit.

The Laguna Beach installment of the continuing drama began when the Fordes announced their plans to commission Los Angeles-area artist Nancy Rubins to construct a sculpture in a large pine tree in the back yard of their Cliff Drive home. The sculpture, they said, would consist of 30 old water heaters and two house trailers, all entwined in the branches of the tree.

The top of the tree is barely visible from the street, and the back yard is perched atop a cliff overlooking the ocean.

A handful of the Fordes' neighbors contended that the sculpture would not be art, but an eyesore. Not only that, they said, it would partially block their view of the ocean. They appealed to the Design Review Board to deny permission for the sculpture.

"I don't think it's art," said Evelyn Gayman, one of the Fordes' neighbors. "It's an absurdity. I don't think they have a right to put in something that's not in keeping with the surroundings. This is a beautiful area, with beautiful shrubs and trees and the natural cliffs. I don't think they'll improve on nature by putting in something like they want to put in."

Board member Barbara Metzger, in an interview earlier in the week, said she believed that this was something new. She could recall passing judgment on proposals for walls, pools, setbacks, additions, remodeling jobs and unusual forms of construction, but "I don't think we've had an art object come before us before."

"I think we encourage distinctive treatment of homes and we're sensitive to uniqueness wherever we see it, so in that sense this is not a conventional community. But from my point of view, in this particular place where there's the additional fact that this is defined as an environmentally sensitive zone--the oceanfront--and the structure is visible from the street and the beach, it seems to me that it conflicts with the natural setting. I think it's a legitimate concern."

Board member Jeffrey Powers, however, said he believed that "the sculpture is going in a very private place in the garden" and would not affect what the board called an "environmentally sensitive" area.

J.J. Gasparotti, another board member, said he believed the water heaters and house trailers were "materials integral to the artistic statement being made" and said the project should be viewed like any other addition to the property requiring board approval.

"It's necessary to view this as a gray box," he said.

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