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Car Buff Wins Ruling but Not Neighborhood

Times Staff Writer

Some people aspire to live in a neighborhood where garages are filled with elegant Rolls-Royce and Bentley automobiles.

But homeowners in Woodland Hills demanded Friday that Los Angeles officials ban a collection of classic British luxury cars they claim is ruining their San Fernando Valley neighborhood.

In the first test of a 1 1/2-year-old city law that governs the storage of historic vehicles in residential areas, homeowners complained that their neighborhood echoes with noise and reeks of fumes coming from garages used by car restorer Gary Wales. In the end, the city sided with Wales, provided he takes steps to restore relations with his neighbors.

At a hearing in Van Nuys, neighbors complained that the 49-year-old Wales has turned his car-repair hobby into a thriving restoration and resale business that has all but taken over his ranch-style home.

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‘Same Annoyance’

“If he was fixing Chevys or Fords, you wouldn’t call this anything other than a body shop,” neighbor David Weiss told a city zoning officer. “But if it’s a Rolls-Royce, it’s ‘historical.’ ”

Added neighbor Eyvonne Harlow: “With all the pneumatic drilling that goes on, I get the feeling I’m in a dental chair. It’s the same annoyance if you’re grinding the fender of a Rolls-Royce or a Ford Pinto.”

The historic vehicles law was enacted in 1987 to establish guidelines for automobile hobbyists who want to collect or restore old or unusual cars in areas where zoning would normally prohibit such activity.

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Restricts Storage

The ordinance requires hobbyists to screen cars from public view and restricts where they can be stored while being worked on. It says nothing, however, about the number of cars that can be worked on at one time, or the hours in which repair work can be done.

Wales was the first automobile collector to apply for authorization under the law.

He did so after protests by neighbors prompted an investigation by the city’s Building and Safety Department.

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Wales, who described himself as a retired stockbroker who now works as a consultant to other classic car collectors, denied running a business from his home or its two garages.

He said his garages are heavily soundproofed and his rear yard is fenced so that passers-by are unaware that he is rebuilding wrecked and scrapped touring cars. He keeps eight vintage autos at his home.

Dozens of other car collectors who support Wales traveled to Friday’s hearing in shiny, heavily polished automobiles ranging from a 1957 Rolls-Royce to a 1961 Corvair.

Wales, clad in a snappy blue blazer adorned with a Bentley crest on the pocket, arrived in a plush burgundy 1954 Rolls bearing a license plate reading “Prince.”

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“The whole world is listening to this decision,” said one supporter, Eric Baltzer of Palm Springs, who said he had received calls about Wales’ case from restorers as far away as Georgia.

Restoration hobbyist Stan Opatowsky of Woodland Hills declared that driving a new car is a “sign of failure” to true auto aficionados. “If you don’t like what your neighbor is doing, move away,” said Opatowsky, who owns 15 old Chryslers.

Several of Wales’ neighbors also supported him.

‘Expert on Offensive Sounds’

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“I’m an expert on offensive sounds,” said Don Nelligan, a music professor at Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys. He said he had not heard disruptive noise from Wales’ house. “If it had bothered me, I’d be one of the first to complain.”

Lawrence P. Freeman, an attorney for Wales, pledged that a noisy air compressor outside Wales’ main garage will be muffled and two smelly solvent barrels will be moved inside. He reminded Associate City Zoning Administrator Jon Perica that state and federal laws allow auto hobbyists to sell up to four cars a year without being considered professional auto dealers.

After listening to three hours of such charges and rebuttals, Perica ruled that Wales could continue with his collecting and restoring if he promises to mend fences with neighbors.

Another Hearing in a Year

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“A year from now we’ll have another meeting and see how well it went,” Perica said.

Disappointed opponents said they will wait to see what restrictions Perica imposes when a final written decision is filed in about three weeks.

That will spell out how many cars Wales can keep and how many visitors he can entertain at his Erwin Street home during parties he occasionally hosts for car collectors.

“A neighborhood is a place you go home to after work,” Randy Brogna said. “It shouldn’t be a place where you work. You’ll be seeing more and more of these popping up in neighborhoods all over the city after this.”

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Brogna and his wife, Debbie, stepped into their sporty Saab Turbo for the ride back to Woodland Hills as Wales and his wife, Marilynn, climbed into their Rolls to make the same trip.

“I hope we can be friends eventually,” Wales shouted.


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