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Brightly painted home prompts debate in earth-toned La Palma

City considers plan to have homeowners pick from approved palette.

August 31, 2008|Paloma Esquivel | Times Staff Writer

When Adnan Essayli set out to paint the outside of his La Palma home, he wanted a color resembling gold-toned travertine, like the stone-walled homes in his native Beirut.

He spent weeks searching for the perfect color -- with the same exacting attention to detail he had shown over three years of remodeling. Failing to find a color mimicking stone, he settled on a personalized mix of deep-toned golds, with red trim to highlight the windows.

For a year, he has been happy with the color, unaware that some of his neighbors were seething over the suddenly incongruous house in an otherwise coordinated, earth-toned neighborhood.

Here, in this sleepy, 2-square mile spot of suburbia, the Essayli home has become something of a lightning rod. Depending on whom you ask, it is either a symbol of rapid degeneration of American community or one of individual liberty in the best tradition of the nation.

In the face of complaints about the house, the city is now considering adopting an ordinance to regulate home colors. If it passes, homeowners would have to stick to a city-approved palette of colors when repainting.

La Palma -- called Dairyland until 1965, when the dairies had moved out -- prides itself on its quiet neighborhoods and low crime rate. It is a diverse community of about 16,000 residents -- 36% white, 44% Asian, 11% Latino -- though participation in city government is decidedly less diverse.

Last week, more than 100 men and women -- most elderly, many in Hawaiian shirts -- packed a motel conference room set out with cookies, punch and coffee for a heated discussion about the ordinance.

John Di Mario, the city's recently hired community development director, gently explained the pros and cons of a possible ordinance.

Nearby Cerritos has an ordinance that offers homeowners a selection of earth tones to choose from, he said. Other cities, such as Irvine -- well-known for tightly regulating everything from roofing to grass -- rely on restrictions imposed by homeowners associations.

To underscore the issue's complexities, Di Mario read passages from the 1965 children's book "Mr. Pine's Purple House" to the crowd.

"Mr. Pine lived on Vine Street in a little white house. 'A white house is fine,' said Mr. Pine, 'but there are 50 white houses all in a line on Vine Street. How can I tell which house is mine?' "

To make his house stand out, Mr. Pine paints his house purple, Di Mario told the crowd, and then everyone in the neighborhood repainted in bright colors.

There was scattered laughter, but some sat tight-lipped, shaking their heads. Di Mario gave a brief lecture on balancing individual liberty with communal good, then opened the discussion to the crowd.

Among the first speakers was Joe Mendoza, who moved to La Palma six years ago from Long Beach. He lives in a pastel green house in a quiet neighborhood that suits his quiet lifestyle, he said.

Sensing the color issue went beyond paint, Mendoza told the crowd: "Different cultures enjoy different colors."

As if to underscore Mendoza's point, Rex Hand told the crowd, "I don't want my neighborhood looking like some other country. I want it to look like the United States."

Hand, 73, has lived in La Palma in a tan home with cocoa-colored trim for 42 years. Before that, he lived in Maywood, then South Gate and Downey -- each of which, he said, deteriorated until "the community was gone, run down."

"The color of the houses is always how it seems to start," he said.

After the meeting, he overheard people calling him a racist. "I'm not a racist," he said in an interview. "I believe that when people come here to the community, they should do as the community does."

On the other side of the issue is a large contingent of speakers who said the proposed ordinance would put the city on a slippery slope. It would be the first irrevocable step toward government regulation of everything from the color of flowers to clothing, they said.

"Where does it end?" asked Wayne Dickey, 56, wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt.

Judging by applause, the room was evenly divided between those supporting the ordinance and those against it.

Anyone expecting a quick resolution was disappointed. City officials said the staff would look into the issue and return with a report to the City Council in two or three months.

Council members could then choose to adopt an ordinance, or perhaps some kind of guidelines, or do nothing at all.

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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