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NEIGHBORS : Residents--Not Climber--Hit the Wall : Claremont: Like the walls of Jericho, Michael Gray’s 20-foot mountain substitute must tumble down after nearby homeowners object.

Rambo is a community correspondent for Claremont

The wall behind Michael Gray’s house is for climbing--20 feet straight up.

And the neighbors just hate it.

This is the story of a neighborhood dispute. Twelve days ago, in response to a petition signed by 26 protesting residents, the City Council revoked the permit under which Gray, 25, had partially built a wall on which he practices rock-climbing behind the home he shares with his girlfriend at 2230 Brescia Ave.

With four of the five council members agreeing that the city planning staff should not have permitted the project, the council asked Gray to dismantle it by Aug. 23 and offered to compensate him for some expenses.

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Gray has responded by threatening legal action against the city and mounting a letter-writing campaign to persuade officials to allow him to keep his wall.

“It’s like dancing or the ballet,” Gray said as he donned a harness to demonstrate his prowess. “It requires a great deal of thought as well as strength.” Especially popular in Europe, rock-climbing is slated to be a demonstration sport at the 1996 Olympic Games.

Lisa Cox, his 21-year-old girlfriend, maintains tension in a rope that will prevent Gray from falling as he ascends. He dusts his hands with gymnastic chalk for a firm grip and springs onto one panel of the structure, which is shaped like an inverted V with two narrow wings.

Very deliberately, he pulls his 135-pound frame up and across the simulated mountain face, grasping artificial rocks bolted to the board at 16-inch intervals. His high-top, rubber-soled shoes grip the sand-covered surface. He pauses frequently in the 90-degree heat.

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By changing the placement of the composition rocks or turning them a degree or two, Gray can make his climb even more difficult. Until the city issued a stop-work order June 26, he had planned to add an overhang that would tax his ability to surmount a jutting ridge.

Today, the wall remains unfinished. The rear of the structure--the view the neighbors have--has not been covered by plywood; its framework of two-by-fours is still exposed.

Gray, who drives a cement truck for Western Rock Co. in Montclair, was first drawn to rock-climbing when, while rappeling at Webb Canyon Dam two years ago, he watched a party of rock-climbers going up while he was coming down. “This is my expression, my freedom, my sense of self-worth,” he said.

So last spring, Gray made a cardboard model of a wall, drew up plans, checked them out with a structural engineer and consulted with the city planning staff. The staff ruled that the wall was a permissible structure and a permit was issued May 8 for a $41 fee.

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Gray said he has spent $1,800 for steel tubing, lumber and the cement that anchors the wall. It passed a May 18 safety inspection by Dwayne Marx, manager of the city’s building division. But as soon as the framework began rising, City Hall began receiving telephone complaints. The staff took the plan to the Planning Commission in mid-June, and the commission upheld its ruling that the climbing wall was a permissible structure, not a wall that would be prohibited because its height exceeded the six-foot maximum.

Neighborhood opposition, however, prompted the City Council to take up the matter. After hearing from the public July 10, members asked Gray to propose some measure to screen the structure from view. Two weeks later, he said he would plant a row of Carolina cherry laurel trees in the three-foot-high planter that abuts the wall between his property and his immediate neighbors to the north, George and Betty Hiett, 2236 Brescia Ave. But council members said the trees would not be appropriate because they would shed leaves and drop berries on the Hietts’ property.

In the end, the consensus was that the climbing wall violated the spirit, if not the letter, of Claremont’s zoning code. A resolution was adopted that revoked Gray’s permit, offered him $500 in compensation and asked that he dismantle the wall within a month. Council members have since said that the city should foot all of Gray’s expenses that can be documented with receipts and that city labor could be used to remove the cement footings.

“I really feel bad,” Mayor Nick Presecan said. “Mr. Gray did everything right. But I think something like this just isn’t appropriate in a small neighborhood like that. In a rural area, with lots of space, it might be fine. But here, people take a lot of pride in their back yards, and they’re very concerned about privacy.”

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The Hietts could not be reached for comment. Gray’s next-door neighbor to the south, Kathryn Rogers, said she and her husband Winslow do not oppose the structure because they cannot see it from their yard. But Gray discussed his plans with them, she said, and “we are satisfied that his intentions were honorable.”

But Gray and Opanyi Nasiali, who lives at 220 Ferris St. around the corner from Gray and who circulated the petition, said there had been no communication between the opposing parties except at City Hall.

“I guess he didn’t think he had to talk to the neighbors,” Nasiali said.

Gray said that no one approached him with a question or a complaint.

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Lisa Cox has lived in the house she shares with Gray and another friend, Carolyn Cooper, since she was 9; it is owned by her parents, who moved to Beaverton, Ore., early this year. When she was young, Cox said, the neighborhood was full of children and fairly close-knit. Now many of the original householders, like her parents, have retired and moved.

“Nobody talks with anybody here, for the most part,” she said. “There really isn’t any communication.”


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