Quiet Strip of Land Becomes Battleground in Ownership Dispute
For 40 years, some homeowners along Comey Avenue, a quiet, middle-class cul-de-sac off the Santa Monica Freeway in the mid-city area of Los Angeles, have enjoyed something of a real estate bonus in the form of extended backyards.
Their apparent windfall came not long after World War II when a 40-foot-wide county storm channel was filled in behind the even-numbered homes in the 6000 block of Comey. It wasn’t long before several enterprising homeowners pushed their fences back accordingly. The flood channel had been built in the 1920s to drain rainwater from the Beverly Hills and West Hollywood areas into Ballona Creek and then into the ocean south of Marina del Rey.
Neighborhood peace was broken last February when a real estate investor and developer, Abraham Shiepe Jr. of Malibu, thought he had bought the strip of land from Wells Fargo Bank for the bargain price of $2,940--one day before the parcel was to be auctioned at a tax sale.
But 14 Comey Avenue homeowners who have used their extended backyards for everything from gardens to storage areas are fighting mad over the deal and have gone to court to protect their interests. At issue is a block-long strip of land extending from Venice Boulevard to Ballona Creek.
The residents argue that the land was legally transferred to them more than half a century ago when the now-defunct Citizens National Bank subdivided their block. Neighborhood leader Lee Auslender, a 62-year-old film producer, has lived in the community since 1964. He proudly showed a reporter his peach, apple and fig trees and vines of concord grapes growing over what used to be the flood channel. Some neighbors have installed storage sheds on the strip. Some have done nothing but watch the weeds grow.
“This was a very peaceful neighborhood,” Auslender said. “Now it’s a battleground.”
Tempers flared recently when Shiepe placed two concrete barriers, weighing about 10,000 pounds each, at the Venice Boulevard end of the strip to prevent trespassing on what he says is his land.
Complaints were filed in Superior Court declarations by some homeowners when Shiepe began tearing down fences, padlocking gates and, in one case, even welding a gate shut.
“I could not believe it,” said Jo Etta Clay, who owns a multi-unit building next to Ballona Creek, when she recently discovered her backyard gate welded shut.
“Shiepe has conducted a campaign of intimidation and disinformation in an attempt to divide the neighborhood and obtain a transfer of our rights to him,” another longtime resident, Donna Hingley, said in a court declaration.
Shiepe claims that such rhetoric has been inspired by Auslender, who he charges has been whipping up emotions without foundation. “He makes up the facts . . .” Shiepe said in a recent telephone interview from his Lake Arrowhead retreat. “I’m not a villain. They want something for nothing and I’m not going to do it.”
Shiepe said his aim is to turn the strip into a parking lot, a potentially lucrative idea given its location next to busy Venice and La Cienega boulevards and near the Santa Monica Freeway.
Shiepe said that spotting real estate bargains is just one of his talents. He is also in the import brokerage business (“I can bring in anything from missiles to underwear”); collects antique cars; owns a luxury car dealership, and tinkers with World War II military vehicles, including a carpeted tank that he rents for $125 an hour.
Comey Avenue property owners aren’t impressed. They allege that Shiepe has been waving in their faces the quitclaim deed he received from Wells Fargo and warning them that unless they clear the extended portions of their yards he will cite them for trespassing--or, worse, place liens against their homes.
“He’s hassling everybody,” claimed Alex Malinov, 42, who owns a food wholesaling business on La Cienega Boulevard with a back door opening onto an alley next to the disputed land. Malinov, who parks some vehicles on a patch of landfill over the channel, and some other businesses are helping defray some of the homeowners’ legal costs.
The complicated dispute has zigzagged around in Los Angeles County Superior Court since February. Finally last week, a judge granted the homeowners a preliminary injunction that, in effect, ordered Shiepe to return the land to the status quo--no padlocks, no barricades--until the case is resolved.
According to the county’s principal deputy counsel, Paul Hanson, the legal fight is grounded in property laws that are so complex that it could take years to resolve unless an out-of-court settlement is reached.
“It’s very complicated,” Hanson said. “It’s sort of a law school kind of thing. You don’t see this too often.”