Residents of the Serra Retreat area in Malibu like the seclusion of their lush canyon, but the privacy comes with a price.
A motorist who crashed into a tree on Serra Road in 1981 sued each of about 100 homeowners for $10 million. The motorist, who was severely injured in the accident, settled out of court five years later for a total of about $1 million.
In the aftermath of the settlement, Serra Retreat residents paid to install a gatehouse on Serra Road just north of Pacific Coast Highway.
Now other homeowner groups concerned about similar problems are asking permission to install gates.
"I think the lawsuit scared homeowners with private streets," said Neil Bullock, president of the La Chusa Highlands Improvement Assn., which is seeking a gate to close three private streets in the West Malibu neighborhood.
Bullock said he learned about the Serra Retreat lawsuit six months ago, when he began considering a gate to close off part of his neighborhood where people have been dumping construction materials and other garbage on vacant lots at night.
"If we have a gate, we can keep out people who don't belong," he said.
But several property owner groups are asking for gates because of safety concerns.
Some want to protect children from traffic on busy thoroughfares by closing off quiet side streets. Others, such as the Serra Retreat homeowners, want to ensure access for emergency vehicles along private roads where beach-goers are known to park cars.
"These are undersized country roads," said Anne Payne, a homeowner in the Serra Retreat area. "The lanes are just wide enough for cars to pass."
Serra Retreat's gatehouse was approved by the county and built shortly before Malibu incorporated in 1991. In recent years, the property owners association has paid for private security and college students to staff the gatehouse on weekends. Now it is seeking a city permit for the gatehouse to ensure that it can continue the practice.
"I'm sure the accident would not have occurred if we had that gatehouse there," said Holly Cumberland, former president of the Serra Retreat Property Owners Assn.
But permit approvals will have to wait because the city has no rules to govern such matters.
The Planning Commission recently approved a draft set of rules, and the City Council is expected to consider them Aug. 14. The rules will limit the size of guard booths and require that road closures not impede access to public trails or passage between publicly owned streets.