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Bad Neighbors : Disputes: Feuders in Los Angeles County's newest city don't use fists or guns. They fight by fax. They sue. And they pester the City Council.

June 09, 1991|SHAWN DOHERTY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is a fine spring day full of butterflies, sailboats and wild mustard, but Richard I. Fine is crawling in the dirt in his business suit.

The attorney is measuring the distance from his Malibu property to the foundation of his new neighbor's home. "He could have put his house down there," Fine said, pointing to a grassy spot at the bottom of the steep bluff. "But he had to put it right here next to mine."

Until Barry Samuels came along, Fine's redwood home was king of the hill. It overlooked the ocean and neighbors below. But now Samuels' house, proposed to reach 4,400 square feet and 50 feet tall, threatens to dwarf it.

But what gets Fine really angry is that his neighbor's house will be only 10 feet away from his house, depriving him of part of his view, peace and privacy.

"Here his fence is actually on my property," Fine shouts, heading into the bushes with his tape measure. Soon only falling pebbles can be heard as Fine slides down the hill on his journey to measure his neighbor's wrongs.

Stories like Fine's are not uncommon in the city of Malibu. What's new is that they are getting aired as never before, now that residents have a forum in the City Council.

"Some of the council's recent meetings have taken on an air of battle between the Hatfields and the McCoys," said Councilman Mike Caggiano. Neighbors have become regulars at council meetings, tattling about everything from ruined views to horse manure, while City Council members listen. And listen. And listen.

One of the down sides of cityhood, council members are discovering, is that residents want city officials to try to untangle disputes that have transformed well-heeled constituents into bitter enemies.

In Malibu, feuders don't fight to bloody death. They fax. They lobby council members. And a few, with money and spare time, sue. Fine has gone to court several times to stop Samuels, and he is also suing the homeowners group that approved Samuels' project. He faxes council members lengthy letters "almost every day," said Mayor Walt Keller.

And at Tuesday's meeting, after a Utah prophet warned the council of nuclear doom, Fine warned members of more immediate disaster next door. He told the council that his neighbor's foundation is taller than his roof and that it is a blight on the landscape. "It's like having a seven-story skyscraper right next door," he said later.

Fine complained that the maid's room in Samuels' house will have a prime view of his Jacuzzi and spa--and of the three Fines in their bathing suits. Already, construction workers peer into Fine's windows, the lawyer said in an interview, and once they left their portable toilet tipped over on his property.

Fine says he has spent $300,000 on lawyers and other experts to help put together his lawsuit, which comes to trial in July.

Local homeowners say it is not the first time: Fine once sued a neighbor who was trying to subdivide her property, and another time threatened to sue when a rock rolled down the hill and dented his garage.

"What's happening to the days of friendly neighbors?" asked Ron Krisler, one of the homeowners Fine is currently suing. "This guy is obsessed. Everybody in the neighborhood is looking over their shoulder."

Samuels, who denies that his workers spy or tip toilets, said he has complied with all building codes. He chose to build at the top of the hill, he said, because he wants a view, too. "Neighbors in Malibu are historically horrible people," Samuels said of Fine. "They have theirs, and they don't want anybody else to come in."

Animosity between the two men peaked last spring when, according to Fine's wife, Maryellen, Samuels followed Fine out of a courtroom and threatened him. Her husband then poked fun at Samuels' wig, she said.

Samuels denies that the exchange took place. But Fine hired a 24-hour security guard from Wells Fargo and used the incident to win a court order that prohibits Samuels from going within 100 yards of the Fines.

There remains some dispute over whether that order could actually prevent Samuels from living in his own home once it is built. But that issue may be moot, since Maryellen Fine said she is ready to sell the house. It makes her nauseous to think of living so close to Samuels, she said.

Relations are no more neighborly between Richard and Susan Douglass and Michael McGleno, who is trying to build a house next door to the Douglasses on Point Dume.

The Douglasses claim that McGleno's home will tower over the neighborhood. They are outraged at McGleno's plans to put barbecue and recreation equipment on a deck that is less than 10 feet from their bedroom window. And they predict that McGleno will move back four horses that tormented them with dust and the smell of manure.

Things are so tense that at one recent City Council meeting McGleno hid in the projection room until the Douglasses left. McGleno said he fears for his personal safety.

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