‘Neighborhood War’ Raises Zoning Ordinance Questions

Via Escondido Tent

The Malibu Planning Commission came together on Monday night to decide the fate of a tent that has torn the Via Escondido neighborhood apart, closing the book on an argument that took two consecutive Planning Commission meetings and comments from over 15 residents to settle.

At stake was not only the fate of resident Howard Rudzki’s two-car-garage-sized tent, but an interpretation of the grandfather clause built into the Coastal Act, which would make the tent a so-called “legal, nonconforming structure.”

According to Rudzki, the tent holds both a functional and sentimental value to him.

“Growing up, I worked with my father assembling lighting parts and woodworking,” Rudzki said. “This brought us very close; unfortunately, I did not have time to see him before he died. Having a place to assemble parts he left me gives me joy and memories of our time together.”

Rudzki presented to the Commission a yellowed photograph that he claimed was taken of the existing tent in 1971, where it was constructed by a previous owner, and added that he believes the conflict with the City is born of a “misunderstanding;” however, neighbors cried foul.

Neighbor after neighbor came to testify that the tent was a recent addition to the property.

“This isn’t a pup tent, this isn’t a camping tent,” said neighbor Dale Schaeffer, who told Commissioners he built his house on Via Escondido in 1976. “It’s a heavy permanent structure and it wasn’t there.”

“In August of 2012, the tent was not there,” said neighbor and local real estate agent Kate Novotny.

Neighbor Craig Cullen claimed he “never saw any kind of structure” there, and neighbor Terry Hoge added, “there was no tent.”

The list goes on.

“The homeowners of Sycamore Park have been held hostage for years by this,” said neighbor Todd Robinson.

In response to all of this, Rudzki claimed his neighbors were lying.

“Everything they said is untrue,” said an angered Rudzki to the Commission at the May 4 meeting. “I have pictures, I have proof. They all have nothing, except their hopes and dreams and blah blah blah.”

An angry voice from the back of chambers shouted at Rudzki in reply.

“We’re all lying, Howard? We’re all lying? Burn in hell!”

It appears Novotny wasn’t far from the truth when she said the disagreement over the tent, which City staff wanted taken down as it encroaches onto protected zones of an oak tree and a sycamore tree, had become a kind of “neighborhood war.”

“I don’t want to turn it into a neighborhood war,” Novotny said. She also drew attention to Rudzki’s lack of standing with the grandfather clause.

“So just because somebody has a photo of something in 1971… doesn’t mean it’s been continuously there. Once you take the things down and take it out, it’s my understanding you have no vested rights to replace it. If that’s not true, a lot of people here have a lot of things they’d like back.”

Commissioners discussed the clause during the continuation of the item on the May 18 agenda, where Assistant City Attorney Tarquin Preziosi clarified the wording of the law.

“Typically you lose the rights of grandfathering after six months of noncontinual use,” Preziosi told the Planning Commission.

Commissioner Mikke Pierson said, then, that evidence suggests the tent is not under any protection. “In my mind, there’s clear evidence the tent — a tent — was there in the past. There’s clear evidence a tent is there now. I think there’s credible evidence from people who talked last time… that the tent was not there, for a time.”

Commission voted its unanimous support of staff’s decision, with four out of four commissioners voting against Rudzki’s tent. Commissioner Roohi Stack did not attend Monday’s meeting.

The implications of the vote are meant to enforce a July 2013 ruling that Rudzki must take down his tent and remove the items that were stored inside of it; however, commissioners expressed skepticism that the tent would be taken down, since Rudzki could say the tent isn’t permanent.

“Theoretically, we’re giving him a structure that isn’t permanent,” Commissioner John Mazza said.

“So theoretically, we could support the staff tonight, and tomorrow he could move that tent five feet. and then a month from now move it another five feet. That’s his solution,” Chair Brotman said.

Planning Director Bonnie Blue replied that since Rudzki was applying for the tent as a permanent structure, that shouldn’t be an issue, and Commissioner Jeffrey Jennings said either way, he would likely not get away with it.

“Just to point out, that’s not a solution, because the armed forces of Escondido Canyon will continue to fight this war, so we’re not solving anything here,” Commissioner Jeffrey Jennings said.