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California and the West

Neighbors Clucking Over Doctor's Henhouse

Development: Complaints about a chicken coop turn into a debate over lifestyle on an island filled with wealthy newcomers.


BELVEDERE, Calif. — The hens that share Dr. William Rothman's island home are a gentle lot. They peck and scratch and make soft, broody chicken noises, more focused on food than their spectacular setting.

But a battle about their abode, a somewhat graceless henhouse Rothman built without city permission seven years ago, could force the flock's eviction.

Belvedere, a lush and secluded island connected by a causeway to upscale Marin County, is in the grips of the Bay Area's real estate frenzy. The small bay-side house Rothman bought for $125,000 in 1972 is now worth more than $2 million--as a tear-down. New neighbors include a Japanese TV star and several Internet millionaires.

As wealthy newcomers level original homes to build villas and mansions, the tenor of the city is changing. People want the polish of an upscale neighborhood, something Rothman said he has learned the hard way.

Two years ago, two people complained to the city about Rothman's chickens. Since then, he has fought to keep the flock. Unless he can come up with a coop design that Belvedere's leaders find aesthetically pleasing, his hens will have to go.

"This is a debate about class and economic diversity, but the city says it's about the building," said Rothman, 62. Dressed in denim overalls worn with a turquoise button-down shirt and neatly knotted tie, the retired physician has clearly left his clinical days behind him.

His coop is an 8- by 10-foot shed made of redwood and wire mesh topped with a corrugated metal roof. The coop, which cannot be seen from the road, is near the foot of Rothman's steeply raked waterfront property.

There, perhaps encouraged by the breathtaking view that sweeps from Sausalito past the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oz-like spires of downtown San Francisco, Rothman's hens lay their eggs. His flock of 18 Rhode Island Reds, Barred Plymouth Rocks and Araucanas produces enough pale green, blue and cream eggs to supply neighbors and strangers. And to bolster his philosophy.

"These eggs should be a metaphor for our community, which has no economic or racial diversity," Rothman said. "But instead, the city just wants to talk about the building."

Rothman's chicken coop first came under scrutiny two years ago, when a neighbor and another resident objected to the flock. City officials said the fact that a neighboring house had just been offered for sale for $2.5 million was irrelevant to the timing of the complaint.

At first the City Council invoked Belvedere's noise ordinance, but Rothman's hens are a quiet lot. A plan to outlaw chickens, ducks and other fowl was dropped after City Council members took a field trip to Rothman's coop. They decided instead to ask Rothman to obey existing laws that require any building too small to need a permit to undergo design review by the Belvedere Planning Commission.

Just a small matter in a small community. And then City Manager Ed San Diego weighed in.

"As far as I'm concerned, you can tell the crackpot that he can cook his chickens in a Crock Pot, and you can quote me," he said in public in 1998. Newspapers did. The dispute became a staple in a San Francisco daily and soon found its way to the pages of Newsweek.

The City Council quickly apologized to Rothman, but for San Diego, the subject still lacks charm.

"We're not asking Dr. Rothman to do anything different from any other Belvedere citizen," the city manager said last week.

The Planning Commission asked Rothman to hide his coop and suggested he use a lattice similar to his neighbors' fences. He produced a scale model swathed in lattice and draped in vines. Last month, the commission voted 3 to 1 against the structure. "Lacks attractive architectural detail," the decision read.

This month, Rothman, who is running for City Council, will appeal the decision to the council.

"It's pretentiousness, that's what it is," said Ed Blakely, a professor of policy, planning and urban development at USC and onetime mayoral candidate in Oakland. "Things like this design review process are just another way of gating a community--of defining people to keep them out."

It's also a uniquely urban approach.

"I suspect this would not be such a big issue in Tuscany," said David Dale-Johnson, director of the real estate program at USC.

"We are a little bit narrow in our thinking about what's acceptable in an urban environment. What you have in many cities is a board [which gets] to impose their taste on their neighbors, which, in my opinion, is a form of land use regulation which really has a great potential to be abused."

But Belvedere's mayor sees it differently.

"This is not an issue about chickens and, as far as I'm concerned, it never was," said Corinne Wiley, a 40-year resident of Belvedere. "We're talking about an illegal building that has to be brought up to code. All he'd have to do is put on a nice little roof, make it neat and I don't think it would be a problem."

Although homes in the city of 2,280 residents now sell for millions, Wiley recalls Belvedere's rustic past.

"Someone in Belvedere has always had chickens; we used to have peacocks and ducks," she said. "Half the time we don't even know they're there unless there's a complaint. I think a little rural flavor here is great."

So does Anne Kasanin, the lone planning commission member to vote in favor of Rothman's coop design. The granddaughter of Virginia farmers, she has lived on the island since 1961.

"Covering the existing coop with lattice seemed an adequate solution," she said. "Applying design review standards that are for homes to a chicken coop just doesn't make any sense; a lot of us have sheds that could not stand up to that kind of scrutiny."

Rothman said the ordeal has given him a new perspective on the potential for absurdity in city government.

"If a tree falls in Belvedere and no one hears it, does it violate the noise ordinance?" he asked, and went to feed the hens.

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