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A man's castle, under code enforcement siege

Alan Kimble Fahey's 20,000-square-foot labyrinth of buildings, called Phonehenge West, in Acton is a 30-year labor of love. But county code enforcement officials want him to tear it down, so he's going to trial.

May 26, 2011|By Ann M. Simmons, Los Angeles Times
  • Alan Kimble Fahey wants to turn part of Phonehenge West, named for his career as a phone service technician, into a museum, and another into a library and gift shop. He also has plans for a crafts workshop for disabled children. But Los Angeles County wants it torn down for code violations.
Alan Kimble Fahey wants to turn part of Phonehenge West, named for his career… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Bargain land and wide-open spaces drew Alan Kimble Fahey to Acton. A modest ranch house on a desert lot offered the outpost he sought.

But then Fahey wanted to expand. So he began to build.

And build. And build.

Fahey built a barn and moved in. He traded his motorcycle for a trailer and painted it to look like a rail car. He bartered other possessions for a dump-truck load of rocks and a 60-foot workers' lift. Then he sank 108 utility poles a dozen feet into the hard-packed Antelope Valley ground. Reinforced steel beams came next. A giant tower began creeping skyward. A wing sprouted off the tower. Then another.

Almost three decades later, Fahey, 59, a retired phone service technician, was still working on what is now a sprawling, 20,000-square-foot labyrinth of interconnected buildings he calls "Phonehenge West," stopping only when he was forced to. (The site is not to be confused with Phonehenge, a configuration at a theme park near Myrtle Beach, S.C., featuring England's famed red telephone booths.)

His structure, sitting on 1.7 acres, is set back from the street and slightly obscured by junipers and a eucalyptus. A dirt road leads in; Fahey uses a motorized cart to get around between his buildings. His closest neighbor is about 100 feet away.

Fahey's creation is composed of a hodgepodge of reddish buildings. The tower, now 70 feet high, juts above pepper trees and is adorned with Italian stained-glass windows. A winding, French-inspired curved metal stairway meanders from the elevated barn to the ground. Bridges and ramps connect the buildings.

People come from all over to take pictures. Glamour magazine recently used the tower as the setting for one of its fashion spreads. Fahey hopes that Phonehenge West might one day be unearthed by archeologists, just like the English Stonehenge.

But Stonehenge's creators presumably didn't have to worry about building codes.

Los Angeles County code enforcers are now demanding that Fahey's Phonehenge be torn down because of an array of building and fire code violations. The district attorney has charged Fahey with 14 criminal misdemeanor counts of maintenance of un-permitted properties and unlawful use of land, offenses that could carry a sentence of up to seven years in prison. Fahey has refused to settle the case, and a jury trial is set to begin Thursday in Lancaster.

The battle over Phonehenge West has sparked strong feelings in the Antelope Valley. The high desert is vast and desolate, offering large parched lots at relatively reasonable prices. Many residents view it as a kind of modern frontier. They moved to the area to escape the confines of urban living, and they balk at what they consider authoritarian restrictions and regulations.

Truckers have been cited for keeping big rigs in their yards. Other residents have faced fines for storing cargo containers on their properties or keeping too much livestock. Local online forums and blogs are ablaze with complaints that code enforcers are overly aggressive.

But perhaps none of the Antelope Valley's many code violations is as spectacular as Fahey's. His case has triggered an outpouring of support from those who share his defiance toward code enforcement.

A Facebook page called Save Phonehenge West has almost 300 followers. A national group called F.A.C.E.OFF (Fight Against Code Enforcement Office), which states its mission as "eliminating abusive, aggressive, illegal and unconstitutional code enforcement practices," is also backing Fahey. Supporters argue that Phonehenge West is an architectural marvel — even a work of art.

"This is an exceptional place," said David Lewis, a local advocate for code enforcement reform. "Most of the properties that are involved in code enforcement actions are not visually striking. It's something the public can look at. It's something special that shouldn't be demolished."

Fahey has been working on what he casually calls his "project" almost as long as did another ceaseless builder, Simon Rodia, who built the Watts Towers over more than 30 years beginning in 1921. Fahey said he admires Rodia's vision and sees himself in the same mold.

Bill Guild, council president in the nearby Antelope Valley town of Littlerock, said Fahey's creation "has far more charm than the Watts Towers." Left to flourish, it "could become a significant tourist attraction," he said.

But county legal officials say Phonehenge West is a gross violation of building regulations and that some neighbors have complained that it's an eyesore.

Tony Bell, a spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who represents the Antelope Valley, said high desert locales such as Acton spent years developing rules for appropriate construction and deserve "to have development standards that protect their public safety and preserve their quality of life, just like anywhere else."

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