If good fences make good neighbors, what do bad fences make?
Inmates -- at least in Rolling Hills Estates.
That's what Francisco Linares found out this week, when an L.A. County Superior Court judge sentenced him to six months in jail. His crime? Erecting a 180-foot-long fence while building his dream home in the horsy hills of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Never mind Paris Hilton and her 45-day sentence for serial probation busting. Forget about Nicole Richie and her four-day jail term for driving the wrong way on the Ventura Freeway while stoned. (Note: She served only 82 minutes.)
This must be one dangerous fence, because the 51-year-old insurance company district manager who says he has never even committed a traffic violation faces a full day in Los Angeles County Jail for every single flawed foot of it.
"This," a stunned Linares said Tuesday, "is nothing that you should be taken to court for."
The city of Rolling Hills Estates believes otherwise.
Two and a half years ago, officials filed misdemeanor charges against Linares, alleging that he had refused to tear down the offending white fence, that he had erected a too-tall retaining wall and that his proud stone columns just don't fit in around here.
They gave him time to get the proper permits or tear down the offending structures. And then they threw the book at the man who says he has spent 142 hours and $50,000 in building and defending the fence.
City officials weren't talking much after Linares' sentencing, which he has appealed.
But Roy Beall, the Rolling Hills Estates zoning and code administrator, did read from an official written statement, which outlined the steps the city had taken and rued the outcome of Linares' actions: "Unfortunately, Mr. Linares chose not to comply and his decision has forced the court to act accordingly."
Translation: six months behind bars, starting Sept. 10, unless Linares prevails at a hearing four days before that, which could lead to an appeal.
Linares' story began more than a decade ago.
That was when the Cuban expatriate would pile his wife, Milagros, and their three young daughters into the family car and motor through the graceful neighborhoods of the peninsula, dreaming with his wife of someday moving there from Torrance.
At the time, Crystal, now 23, thought her mother's dream of owning a home in Rolling Hills Estates was "unattainable. And then when I got to high school, we moved here. Now we have all these problems. I think her dream turned into a nightmare."
In 1998, the Linares family bought the nearly one-acre lot on Palos Verdes Drive North. They tore down the original 3,000-square-foot, Spanish-style home and replaced it with a French-accented white brick house nearly twice the size.
Then, Linares said, he discovered termites in the white fence that separates his eucalyptus-filled lot from the city bridle trail that borders it. The city wouldn't replace the fence, so he did it himself.
That was when the "nightmare" started.
On Oct. 20, 2004, the city wrote a letter to Linares stating that "the new fence has reduced the width of the trail significantly, making it impossible for maintenance vehicles to pass through." A city ultimatum followed: Remove the fence within 14 days or we'll do it and charge you for it.
In the last three years that simple letter has grown into a legal case file half a foot thick, including 11 charges of misdemeanors against the city's municipal codes and county building codes, as well as allegations of forged planning documents, though no such charges were filed.
Linares has had three lawyers.
It's not as if the semirural area has been otherwise immune to squabbles over standards, stories and square footage, as aging residents in one-level ranch houses have begun to give way to young families with McMansion dreams. Rolling Hills Estates is one of the most affluent communities in Los Angeles County, with a median income of $123,900 and a median home price of $1,392,000.
Adelaide Mealy, 81, has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years, and she said that fights -- among residents as well as those pitting homeowners against the city -- are "happening all over the hill."
The place next to hers is being remodeled and "is going to be a massive house." The one behind her lot is adding on too, she said, "but I can't fight them all."
"What you have here is a mixed-use neighborhood," is Mealy's wry observation on her residential area, "old people and young people."
Superior Court Judge Sandra Thompson saw it a little differently Monday, when she sentenced Linares to jail.
When he had appeared before the court in January, he pleaded no contest to five misdemeanor charges, and the city agreed to drop six others. He also promised to either get final permits for the fence and other offending structures or tear them down.
And if he didn't follow through? He agreed to go to jail if the judge so ordered.
A raft of legal back-and-forth followed, and more is to come. But as of Monday, he had received no final permits and the fence still stands. So he stood before the judge for a six month sentence and a scolding.
"Imagine my disappointment to find we are no further along in resolving these issues," Thompson said. "At the rate we're going, we'll still be talking about this at my retirement party."
To the city, the jail term is a standard penalty for a municipal code violation.
To Linares' family, still reeling, it is "bizarre," said his attorney, Richard Hamar. "It is Orwellian. It is coming from a very dark place."
Said Milagros on Tuesday: "We're talking about a fence."