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Hilldale Drive neighbors bring complaints of alleged illegal car business to City Council for repair

A group of Hilldale Drive residents shared their frustrations with the La Cañada Flintridge City Council Tuesday about a man on their street who appears to be selling and repairing vehicles from his house without a business license.

In an interview Wednesday, however, the man had a different story to tell.

Four neighbors aired their grievances to council members in a public comment session, during which they described their many efforts over the past two years to speak with Dennis Sefiner, the self-described owner of Merge Motor Group, LLC, and others residing at 1994 Hilldale Drive.

“This issue has been coming up since 2015,” said homeowner Anuja Gregg. “He is bringing cars that are in disrepair, repairing them and then selling them to buyers.”

Chief among the neighbors’ complaints are constant visits from apparent customers and buyers, and a proliferation of cars camped out on a cramped and winding street, where neighborly disagreements over space and parking are historic, according to Community Development Director Robert Stanley.

“There have been disputes all over this neighborhood,” Stanley said June 16, after a Facebook message posted by Gregg that day describing the scenario was brought to his attention. “Everybody has issues there because some people have problems with parking. Some people have no parking at all.”

Hilldale resident Deborah Parker told council members Tuesday she’s researched Merge Motor Group, which maintains a website and has photos of cars parked at or near the home posted on a Yelp page.

Those sites list the group’s business address as 7905 Van Nuys Blvd. in Panorama City, an address belonging to Van Nuys Auto Mall. But Parker said there’s nothing on that company’s website that references doing any business with Merge Motor Group, LLC.

“It lists the dealerships that are actually doing business at that location, and Merge Motor Group, LLC is not one of the dealerships listed,” Parker said.

In an interview Wednesday, Sefiner said he’s lived at the property for about a year and a half but started Merge Motor Group three months ago. As a broker, he finds new and used cars for customers, then details and delivers them for sale or lease. He also offers financing options.

The 26-year-old stated the only cars he is now keeping on site regularly are a friend’s BMW 6 Series and his own Mini Cooper, which he’s been working on as a hobby. He said he previously kept a Nissan and Toyota, also belonging to him.

“Those are personal cars,” he said. “It’s not in any way affiliated with the business.”

Neighbor Robert Newcombe, like Gregg, filed a complaint with La Cañada’s code enforcement officer in March and never got a response. He claimed the owner of the property has had a number of renters occupy the home over the years.

“They probably can’t use the garage, because she cut up part of the garage to make it a rental apartment in there,” said Newcombe, adding the property is shared by two groups who claim to be related. “I’m not convinced these two families are related.”

Sefiner said the property was split into two units by the owner. His mom and stepfather, along with a brother and two sisters, live in one unit, while he occupies the other and currently has a friend staying with him for a few weeks to do some repairs on the home.

Sefiner admitted he does drive home different cars from work, for conveyance, and occasionally works on his father’s van. He claims his neighbors have been harassing him ever since he started his business.

“What they’ve been doing is calling the sheriff or police every single time, or they send emails behind my back to my family members. It is harassing, and it’s just two neighbors,” he said, naming Parker and Gregg.

Stanley said a code enforcement officer visited the property Monday, found an illegally placed shade structure over the driveway and one inoperable vehicle and gave the resident one week to fix the car or move it into the garage.

“If he’s parking a car there legally and it’s in his driveway and it’s operable and it has a current registration, there’s not much we can do,” Stanley added. “If he’s operating a business and we can determine that, we can go after him for not having a business license in our city.”

Mayor Mike Davitt promised city staff would straighten out the situation. City Manager Mark Alexander agreed.

“This issue of operating a business in a residential area concerns me. We’re going to look a lot closer at that issue,” he said. “If it is (a business), we do have grounds to shut that down.”

Sefiner confirmed the code enforcement visit, saying he was told the Mini Cooper couldn’t be left on jack stands and plans to comply with the officer’s request. He said he would be happy to clear up any confusion by speaking city officials.

“I welcome them, any time, any place,” he said.

sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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