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But Are Their Own Houses in Order? : Culture: Laguna’s design police rule the city’s landscape with an iron hand. We find out what their own digs are like.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everybody heard about the house that was too white. Then there was the perfectly cute white picket fence the design police said was too tall.

The other day, they told a couple they couldn’t build their dream house--admittedly huge--because it would dwarf the others on the block and leave a neighbor in the shade. It may be the first home nixed by its own shadow.

This is the same Design Review Board that deemed the collection of hot water bottles and car parts in someone’s back-yard tree an objet d’art.

Admit it. At some point you’ve wondered: Who are these people? And where do they live?

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Would they be Stepford homes? Easter egg colors? Would we find vinyl couches on the veranda? Pink flamingos in the dichondra?

Wouldn’t a design cop living in an unsightly home be as suspect as a pediatrician without kids? A dentist without teeth? A mechanic who doesn’t drive?

But wait. Shouldn’t we be above the kinds of neighborhood stinks that have people sobbing at public meetings about back-yard jungle gyms and front-yard basketball hoops? Don’t we have more pressing problems to consider, like world hunger and global warming, not to mention our Christmas shopping?

Naaaaaah! Let’s go take a look.

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OK, but first these points, brought to you by the five very nice members of the Design Review Board:

1. Despite the temptation to make cliche remarks about twee types getting just a little too precious down there in the art colony, you can’t argue with results: Laguna Beach is a pretty good-looking place.

2. It’s no walk in the woods being the design police. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t go looking for bad paint jobs and ugly window treatments. They have nothing against white. They have nothing against shade. People come to them with gripes. You won’t see them staking out that purple bungalow with the American flag curtains. They’re mere enforcers of the town’s character manifesto to be charming and village-esque.

3. As unreasonable as some of their actions may seem, somebody else passed the laws. Architect “Philip Johnson could design the most awesome building, and it could be cute as all get out,” says board member Meg Monahan, “but it doesn’t mean we have any legal grounds to approve a variance.”

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4. For what is mostly a steady diet of ad nauseam garden-variety buildings and room additions too boring to mention, they make 75 cents an hour.

First stop, home of Barbara Metzger, chairwoman of the Design Review Board.

Lots of people think that the board lords it over architects, approving only those buildings that strike their fancy. Metzger says phooey.

“Nobody is expressing his personal tastes in a decision,” she says. What the board does is “not really a matter of taste; it’s a matter of judgment, and what works in the community.”

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Which brings us to her house. She is not happy about a newspaper columnist who described her home on Nido Way as “Army green with chocolate-brown trim"--although perhaps if the writer were going to mention anything, it should have been her buckling concrete steps and various shades of brown paint.

Whether a building fits into the neighborhood is one yardstick the design police use, and Metzger’s nature-colored house does that nicely. Hmmm. What about that mailbox, though, decorated with aqua flowers that appear to have been cut out of wallpaper?

The mere mention of that understandably makes Metzger bristle. She expresses frustration with the lack of understanding “outsiders” exhibit about her town.

“I can see that this article is going to be extremely entertaining to your readers in other parts of the county,” Metzger said. “This community is different, and those who live outside the community fail to understand what the values are here. So if people in Orange want to get a lot of enjoyment out of this . . . “

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It’s begun to rain as we pull up to the home of John (J.J.) Gasparotti, a contractor who lives on the canyon side of the Temple Hills neighborhood.

And what do we have here but a basketball net and backboard hanging from the public utility pole on the street! We kind of like that. Does that homeowners group in Brea know about this? My God, they are raising a humongous stink over there about free-standing versus attached hoops. And wait a minute. There’s a banana-yellow catamaran parked in the driveway! Do they allow boats in residential driveways in Laguna? We make a note to check the zoning on that.

Otherwise, this brown wood multilevel home seems to fit nicely into its surroundings.

About the basketball hoop, Gasparotti says it belongs not to him but to everyone on the street.

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As for the boat, zoning administrator John Connor points out that it’s illegal to park anything--even your own car--in your own driveway for an extended period. Where are you supposed to park? “That’s what garages are for.” How do they keep up with all the violators? “Weeeell,” Connor says, “it’s not a problem if nobody complains to us.”

Over now to Meg Monahan’s. We like this place a lot. In fact, we confess we like Meg a lot. She has a sense of humor. She also admits to having “an awkward roof line” on her home, which is situated on Lombardy Lane in the heart of Laguna.

Monahan, a landscape architect, has a house of brown wood with a neat flower bed and turquoise shutters at each side of a front sliding-glass door. The window treatment seems more fitting for a smaller opening--perhaps on a gingerbread house. But it’s kinda funky. And the house fits into the neighborhood well.

“Mine . . . is probably not one I would want to support in the review process,” she says with a chuckle, “but I fell in love with the man, not the house. I didn’t join the Design Review Board because I live in a pretty house, though. I’m on the Design Review Board because I wanted to contribute a public service.”

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On to the Temple Hills home of Andrew Wood, a retired school principal with an easy laugh, and whose other careers have included flower shop owner and aerospace management consultant. Wood was the first to admit his home’s flaws.

“The garage door and the fascia, they can sorely use some paint,” he said with a chuckle. “When we heard you’d been by, we were kinda nervous. Hey! None of us lives in a castle.”

He sought appointment to the Design Review Board noting this philosophy on his application: “The clothes make the man. I think you’re going to behave the way you live, and what you live in affects how you live.”

Hmm. And yet he admits nondescript best describes his home, a taupe single-story ‘60s tract house with a wood shingle roof. About the only thing that stands out here is the paint-chipped plywood-like garage door with its rusty handle. Unless you demand interesting from your neighbors, this is a home that would offend no one. Not even grease in the driveway.

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As do other design cops, he says he tries when possible to practice live-and-let-live.

“This village idea, nobody really defines it,” Wood says, so the design board sometimes must interpret--even to the point of absurdity.

“We’re talking about a couple of stupid fences; I feel bad about it,” he said. The woman with the too-tall picket fence got lucky; she got to keep it. But someone else--brought before the board for a minor setback violation--did not.

“The people wanted more privacy, but the thinking was that it sort of isolates you and makes you aloof, and that’s not villagey. Well, jeez, here we all are looking like idiots when we should be approving the thing and getting on with it. We get into Dutch on these close ones.”

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Last stop, Helen Krugman’s place on Hillcrest Drive in the northern Laguna neighborhood of Emerald Terrace. She has a mirthful approach to matters civic, particularly for someone whose neighbor put up a windowless wall blocking what had been a panoramic view of Catalina Island.

Yes, it’s why she joined the review board.

If homes were ice cream, hers would be vanilla. A fire hydrant planted on the side yard is the most noticeable thing about the property--a 1951 stucco home painted cream with matching trim.

“It reduces my fire insurance, so I love it,” she says of the hydrant.

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There are some paint drips from the base of the balcony, and the sidewalk buckles up slightly here and there, but that’s nit-picking.

The next-door neighbor has a gray home where some gardener has pruned a hedge to reveal a previous yellow paint job.

Tsk, tsk. Krugman will have to get after that.

Onward back to my casa , where the lawn needs watering, the palm tree is spitting out dates and the mailbox yawns to one side. So glad about that unlisted number, too.

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