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Not in My Neighbor's Backyard

The State

October 26, 2005|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

The mansionization battle rustling the leaves of North Barrington Avenue is something new even for Brentwood.

It's a dispute not over a 12,000-square-foot neo-Tudor monster or a towering modernist cube, but over a backyard treehouse for an 18-month-old girl.

This being Brentwood, of course, the edifice at issue is no ordinary treehouse.

When Les Firestein, a television producer, and his wife, Gwyn Lurie, a screenwriter, wanted to do something really special for their daughter, Sydney, they enlisted their friend Roderick Wolgamott Romero.

Romero is a renowned builder of elaborate treehouses for such celebrities as Sting and Donna Karan. His work can be found in the "fantasy gift" section of this year's Neiman Marcus holiday catalog. Beginning price: $50,000.

In the backyard of the Firestein-Lurie home, which sits on a tree-studded half-acre north of Sunset Boulevard, Romero and his buddies built a roughly 10-foot-by-10-foot structure of reclaimed wood, salvaged windows and vintage stained glass from Buenos Aires that would quicken the heart of any fun-loving child or parent. The treehouse includes a viewing deck bordered by a railing crafted from tree branches from the backyard.

In return, Romero asked for a week's worth of lodging and all the Baja Fresh meals he could eat. With his tattooed arms and braided, knee-length hair swept up under a tweed cap, Romero and his pals worked for days, even in the rain.

Richard Fleming, the couple's next-door neighbor and a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, was not amused.

He feared that children could perch in this aerie and look in on him and his wife in their backyard pool and hot tub. He suspected, also, that city codes had been violated.

Enter the city of Los Angeles. As the treehouse neared completion last Thursday, city inspector Thomas Sze arrived on the Firestein-Lurie doorstep, responding, he told them, to an anonymous complaint.

"Oh, that's big," Lurie said he told them after looking at the treehouse and the much larger platform on which it rested. Sze also expressed concern about the structure's safety. On Friday, he delivered a written order that all work be halted.

"We're requiring plans and permits if [they] want to continue," Dave Keim, the city's chief of code enforcement, said in an interview Tuesday. "We'll work with them to try to legalize this.... It's not going to be easy."

The city does not require permits for nonhabitable structures less than 8 feet square, but Keim said the treehouse exceeds that size and therefore requires city permission. Firestein and Lurie can appeal whether a permit is required.

Firestein, whose credits as a TV producer and writer include "The Drew Carey Show" and "In Living Color," said his rights have been violated. "We just want to make this a magical place," he said. "It's as if the city has come in and said: 'We're outlawing magic.'

"And where do we go from here? No viewing platforms? No climbing in trees? No swing sets? No children playing? It is, figuratively and literally, a slippery slope."

The slope on which the Firestein-Lurie treehouse sits is dramatic. The steep hillside spills down from the back steps of their house to an expanse of green dotted with a play set, a trampoline inserted directly into the lawn and a picnic table. The rear is lined with towering eucalyptus trees. A moss-covered path zigzags from the main house and deck to the grass.

From down below, one can look back up the hill to the underside of the platform that supports the treehouse. The platform, which by the city's estimation is 20 feet by 30 feet, vaguely resembles a ship, with its "prow" pointing toward the lawn. It is more or less triangular, built around three eucalyptus trees. The platform's beams rest on a system of steel rods that have been inserted into the trees. An arborist assured the homeowners and the builders that the poles would not harm the trees.

The windows of the treehouse face onto the Firestein-Lurie property. The treehouse originally had a rear window that overlooked Fleming's property. After Fleming complained, the builders repositioned it. Firestein and Lurie have also vowed to plant trees and vines to mask the view of the treehouse from Fleming's property.

The couple expressed surprise that the situation has come to this, given their efforts to keep neighbors informed of their intentions -- and given the care they say they've taken to ensure that the treehouse is safe.

Shortly before Firestein and Lurie moved in in August, the couple who sold them their house held a dinner party to introduce them to the neighbors. Fleming and his wife were there. When Firestein and Lurie announced their plan to build a treehouse, Lurie said, one neighbor offered to create a piece of art for it.

Fleming, however, said the treehouse plan "never crossed these ears." If it had, he added, "I would have raised questions immediately."

Dressed in blue scrubs, Fleming stood on his front lawn one recent afternoon and said that "it may turn out to be fine."

After living cheek-by-jowl with neighbors at the beach for several years, he said he values the privacy that this leafy Brentwood neighborhood affords. So does his wife, Margaret Michaels.

The dispute has taken much of the fun out of the treehouse experience for Firestein and Lurie.

They have received encouragement from their neighbor to the south, Craig Butler, a graphic designer.

"I think it's really beautiful," Butler said. "From my vantage point, it is so well integrated, non-obtrusive and very charming. It's like a little clubhouse."

His wife, Alexis, however, noted that in this neighborhood, residents crave total privacy. "Whether it's beautiful or not is not the issue," she said. "If I thought they were looking into our pool, it would be upsetting."

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