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Thursday, December 14, 2006

FICUS FRACAS OR HOW LOWE CAN YOU GO? Recent events call to mind the ancient philosophical riddle: If a hedge is clipped in the wilds of Montecito without its celebrity owner’s consent and the News-Press isn’t there to report it, did it really happen? I can assure you I was not there last summer when, under the mistaken understanding that he had permission, Jim Neuman trespassed onto the property of actor Rob Lowe, his Padaro Lane neighbor, to trim the hedge that blocked Neuman’s million-dollar coastal view.

Once Neuman found out he didn’t have permission, he promised not to do it again and hasn’t. However, I was there last Wednesday morning when Judge James W. Brown rejected Lowe’s argument that he needed nothing less than a temporary restraining order to keep Neuman, his wife, Susan, and his 82-year-old mother-in-law, Rowena “Doodie” Taylor, from sneaking back into his yard — presumably in the dead of a moonless night — with the intent of hacking back his offending ficus. So was Independent photographer Paul Wellman, whom Judge Brown had allowed to shoot the proceedings despite the objections of Barry Capello, Lowe’s attorney. Even though Capello acknowledged in advance that neither Lowe nor his wife would be in court, he insisted the presence of a photographer might “foment a media frenzy” that would adversely affect the Lowes’ privacy. If only it were that easy. As it was, the so-called media frenzy was restricted to Wellman, myself, and the Daily Sound’s ubiquitous Chris Meagher, who roused himself from his sick bed to chronicle the occasion. Conspicuous by their absence were any representatives from the News-Press. But that was to be expected. After all, it was Lowe’s objections to having his address published in a News-Press article detailing his dispute with neighbors of his Picacho Lane property — where he hoped to build his dream house — that triggered the series of events that precipitated the ongoing melt-down at what’s touted as the oldest daily paper in California.

Contrary to what some have suggested, this hedge war is not news solely because of the Lowes’ glitterati status. The fact that the Lowes have been accused of view extortion by two separate neighbors in two separate disputes within the span of six months makes it news. The fact that Lowe was a prominent player in the Homeowners Defense Fund, a group of exceedingly well-heeled NIMBYs affronted by the prospect of state-mandated affordable housing requirements, makes the conflict even more newsworthy. (Lowe is reportedly no longer active with the homeowners’ group.)

I can’t tell you how disappointing it was to actually encounter Doodie Taylor and the Neumans in Judge Brown’s courtroom. Based on Capello’s pleadings, I was expecting something out of the pages of Soldier of Fortune — die-hard monkey-wrenchers dressed in camo outfits, faces smudged black, and armed with high-powered hedge trimmers. Instead, Doodie seemed like Montecito old-school to the max, a study of dignified elegance and reserve. Jim Neuman looked like the sort of guy who might give conservative financial advice to people with eight-figured assets, and Susan came across as someone with stories to tell but too much sense to tell them.

But where were the Girls Gone Wild vixens — detailed in the Lowes’ lawsuit — who sunbathed topless in the Neumans’ yard, getting drunk on beer bongs while the Lowe’s children — and their friends — looked on in fascinated horror? (No wonder the Lowes needed the privacy of a hedge.) Nowhere to be seen, I’m afraid. I asked Doodie and the Neumans about this later, and they insisted the Lowes totally distorted the true picture for strategic, if slimy, purposes. According to them, there was, in fact, a party attended by a handful of young women — all over 21 — where some drinking and sunbathing did occur. In the course of that sunbathing, Doodie said some of the women unhooked their bikini top straps, but only while laying on their bellies. As to the wildness of the party, Susan Neuman insisted it was over by 8 p.m. I called Dr. James Swift of Cottage Hospital — who submitted a letter on the Lowes’ behalf describing the sunbathing as “unconscionable” and “indecent” — to see if Doodie’s story held up. I also called Mark Melchiori of Melchiori Construction, who submitted a similar, if less colorful, letter into the court record about topless beer-bonging. Neither Swift nor Melchiori ever called back. For the record, Capello did — repeatedly — but we never managed to connect.

According to Doodie and the Neumans, the real story is that the Lowes erected the view-blocking ficus hedge to achieve bargaining leverage with the Neumans in their ongoing land-use squabble about an addition the Lowes hope to build off their deck. Doodie has opposed any such addition because given the geometry of their yards, it would block her view of the coast. Before the Lowes’ house was constructed — and well before they bought it — Doodie had succeeded in getting a prohibition of any such view-blocking additions written into the county building permit’s conditions of approval. Almost from the day the Lowes bought the property, they tried getting county permission to build some sort of shade structure there, but got nowhere. Failing that, they erected a tent, which also blocks the Neumans’ view, and which the county has three times decreed to be an illegal structure because it violates the permit by which the Lowes’ house was built. The most recent such decree was issued last Wednesday. But when it comes to enforcing such decrees, the county has been a paper tiger.

The Neumans’ attorney, Derek Westen, termed the Lowes’ ficus “a spite hedge,” designed to bring the Neumans and Doodie to their knees; if they allow the addition, the Lowes will remove the hedge. That sounds a lot like the spat between the Lowes and the Glucks on Picacho Lane. The Glucks objected that the house the Lowes proposed was way too big and would block their view; the Lowes planted “a hedge” of redwoods that also happened to block the Glucks’ view. After raising a considerable stink, the Glucks have now settled with the Lowes. Could all this just be a coincidence? It’s possible. But is it a news story? Without a doubt. Naturally, no one read about it in the pages of the News-Press, whose owner reportedly enjoyed Thanksgiving with the Lowes. I’d suggest that if the Lowes want to avoid unwanted publicity, maybe they shouldn’t sue their neighbors.

In the meantime, ask not for whom the ficus tolls; it tolls for thee.

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