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THE CUTTING EDGE: FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY

Tycoon's Good Neighbor Plan Leaves a Trail of Bad Feelings

Real estate: Broadcom CEO says he's sorry for noisy construction, parties. So he's sprucing up the area--his way.

September 11, 2000|BONNIE HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Multibillionaire Henry T. Nicholas has a problem.

How can he turn his 15,000-square-foot mansion into a showcase party house without ticking off his neighbors, many of them millionaires themselves, in the tranquil, equestrian development of Nellie Gail Ranch?

He's tried inviting them all to his lavish parties, complete with rock bands that jam well into the night on outdoor stages ringed in fire. He's tried offering all-expense paid weekends at the Ritz-Carlton to those who don't wish to come. He's tried giving neighbors a say in what kind of music reverberates over their rooftops and through their backyards.

It has been two years of sawing, drilling and hammering at his palace on the hill, and there's more to come. For putting up with the noise, the construction traffic and the occasional overstepping of property lines and association rules, Nicholas even has tried paying for an array of services at his neighbors' homes, from wrought-iron security fences to lush landscaping to sparkling backyard fountains. Anything they want. At any price.

Still the complaints come. Recently, frustrated neighbors called city officials, who discovered work was being done without permits. The project was shut down.

"I'm trying to do what I can to make things right," said Nicholas, the 40-year-old founder and chief executive of Irvine-based Broadcom Corp., which is growing in a small but exploding computer chip market. "I mean, I gave $15 million to charity and philanthropic causes last year. What's a couple hundred thousand dollars for my own neighbors?"

Nicholas finally thought he had figured out a way to balance his own plans with the concerns of his neighbors: Spread some money around the community itself. Beautify the horse trails that wind through the neighborhood, fix the drainage problem along the paths that has forever dogged the area, bring in landscaping that would knock them all out--this is what he would do.

And this he ordered. But because he is worth $8 billion, and because he is busy running a company "that's going to change the world," Nicholas said he left the details of his project to others. Details like getting building permits and prior approval from the homeowners' association. Or checking with neighbors to see whether they even liked his ideas or wanted the expansive work done.

"It's bizarre," said Cathy Chamberlin, one of several residents who recently discovered that the horse trail behind her home had been freshly landscaped--complete with an interlocking cement retaining wall--and realized it stretched 250 feet down the path and up to the back of Nicholas' yard. There, armed guards stood blocking the public equestrian trail, which is maintained by the community association. Neighbors were turned away, told it was unsafe to pass because workers were tunneling underneath.

Chamberlin--who lives two streets away and down the hill from the billionaire but has a clear view of his home from her backyard--was annoyed.

"I couldn't believe it. He did all this work without asking anybody, and we don't even live that close to him," she said. "I can only guess he's trying to improve his view or something. Like he thinks the neighborhood is his personal kingdom."

After receiving noise complaints from neighbors last weekend, when as many as 100 workers toiled loudly along the horse trail late into the night, the Nellie Gail Ranch Homeowners' Assn. and Laguna Hills city officials paid the billionaire a visit. Nicholas was vacationing in Hawaii, and no one seemed to know who was in charge.

So for digging up the horse trail behind his home and building a cement structure underneath--without securing a single permit--the city posted a stop-work order on Nicholas' towering, etched-glass front doors. The cement structure was built in two days and is reportedly connected to the house by an underground passageway, but city officials--and even the construction workers--said they have no idea what it's for. Nicholas already has fitted his house with hidden doors and secret levers, an underground grotto, tunnels and a 2,000-square-foot sports bar he calls Nick's Cafe.

Nicholas said the latest structure is simply a pump house to deal with the water overflow along the horse trail behind his and his neighbors' homes. He also insisted that he was unaware of the impact that the noise from the construction was going to have on the community.

"I heard they brought in backhoes for the job," he said two weeks ago from Denver. "I'd be a little torqued too if that was going on next door to me. I haven't even seen the project yet . . . But I want to assure everybody, all my neighbors, that I am going to make this right. If they hate the way it looks, I'll tear it all out and they can all be the decorators and I'll foot the bill."

Homeowners' association officials said such retroactive work is not uncommon for Nicholas, who usually seeks approval for his construction projects after the fact and at times has paid a hefty price for doing so.

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