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Hammer Time

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

All the years that Sandy Saemann of Hermosa Beach endured party-animal neighbors next door, he yearned for the day new owners would convert the decaying rental property into a spiffy home.

He never imagined he’d be trading in one set of headaches for another.

But that’s exactly what happened when bulldozers tore down the old house on the Hermosa Strand. Within short order, Saemann had to put up with concrete, sawdust and other assorted debris, not to mention a temporary construction support beam nailed into his house and the constant noise of building.

At one point last October, the city of Hermosa Beach ordered the construction crew to moisten the site three times a day, then cover it with a tarp at night, to mimimize debris on Saemann’s property.

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But Saemann said his greatest frustration has been owner Mike Kaplan’s attitude. He claims owner Mike Kaplan--who lives on the property adjoining the construction site--proved less than sympathetic to his plight.

“I never dreamed anything could be such a nightmare,” Saemann said. “It can only be endured if you have a great neighbor. Mine is not.”

Kaplan contends that Saemann hasn’t been reasonable during the construction, citing protracted battles over a fence and ongoing flare-ups over construction cleanup.

“There have been lots of lawyer letters going back and forth,” Kaplan said.

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Saemann said he plans to seek about $2,000 restitution for out-of-pocket cleaning costs on principle.

As far as he’s concerned, these costs should be considered part of the cost of building a house. “If he’s rich enough to buy a $1-million property, he can afford to clean up,” Saemann said.

“No question I could afford to clean up his property, as could he,” responded Kaplan, who is building the house for his mother. “I’m happy to do anything reasonable. His demands, I feel, are unreasonable.”

Kaplan contends that some of the debris came from a sandstorm on the beach, but Saemann counters that he never before had had that type of sand damage in more than a dozen years of living on the strand.

Testing Goodwill

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“Basically, it’s kind of an ugly neighbor situation I’m unhappy to be in,” Kaplan said.

Nothing can test neighborly goodwill like a a major remodel or new house being built next door. Nails in your house are extreme, but nails on the driveway are not.

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Nor are stucco splatters on walls and windows, cracked driveways, uprooted shrubbery, regular trespassing, siphoned utilities, litter and even workers urinating in neighbors’ shrubs.

Homeowners who have lived next to a construction zone report aggravations ranging from deafening noise to parking woes and varying levels of property damage.

Much to their frustration and despite occasional feelings of helplessness, relief can be hard to come by, short of complaints to local governments, mediation or attorney muscle.

For these homeowners, Southern California’s revitalized housing market has become a double-edged sword. Increased property values have made new construction--whether on empty lots or tear-downs--economically viable.

The building, in turn, has created headaches that tend to be especially acute in Southland neighborhoods where lots are small and setbacks tiny. The Westside and South Bay areas are hotbeds of problems.

“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy--if I had one,” said Marion Haluska, 79, whose family built the Beverly Hills flats home she’s lived in most of her life.

Her problems began a year ago when the 1920s house next door was razed to make way for a bigger one. Besides the illegal after-hours work--Beverly Hills allows construction only from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and weekend activity only with special permits--she’s endured debris and at least one broken sprinkler head.

Although the crew immediately acknowledged the damage, Haluska’s written request for $25 repayment remained unanswered for three months, until she threatened to slap a lien on the contractor.

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“It’s terrible. There’s no concern for me or my property,” she said.

A South Bay resident had a similar lament: “Never in my life would I have imagined that crew after crew would have no consideration for your property at all.”

The homeowner requested anonymity after retaliation for earlier complaints to his city.

Like others, he’s been startled to see crew members trespassing on his property and using his hose without permission.

“It’s not so much the money. It’s just obnoxious to have somebody go onto your property and use your things,” said Redondo Beach homeowner Teri Corpuz.

Cesar Santos didn’t mind letting the construction crew use his electricity and water at first--"I was trying to be a nice neighbor"--but become less willing when the consideration wasn’t reciprocated.

After three years of construction next door to his Beverly Hills home, he’s grown weary of the noise, dust and litter. “There’s paper plates flying all over the place, and this is Beverly Hills,” Santos said.

Others have been dismayed by verboten 6:30 a.m. Saturday start times and the low level of communication from the contractor and / or new owner.

One homeowner returned home one evening to discover a new fence alongside his property, while another was promised a fence collaboration that never came.

“Where building is going on, these problems are arising,” said Lauren Burton, executive director of Dispute Resolution Services.

A nonprofit corporation of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., with offices in Los Angeles, Hermosa Beach, Santa Monica and West Hollywood, Burton’s organization offers free mediation services whenever there’s construction-related conflict that city governments can’t handle.

“The South Bay is the hottest area for these disputes right now,” she said, followed by the Westside. Construction is booming in those communities.

In Manhattan Beach, for example, this year’s demolition tally had eclipsed by the end of September the number of new dwellings in all of last year.

“Since summer, it’s been like wildfire,” said Manhattan Beach building official Carol Jacobson.

For city officials, the trick is to balance revenue-producing construction while minimizing disruption for residents. The closer the houses, the tougher the task.

“The problem is this: Construction is inherently a messy business,” said Redondo Beach City Manager Paul Connelly. “But every house was under construction at one point.

“You try to strike a balance. You don’t want to put on so many restrictions you drive the cost right up to where nobody could afford it.”

Bigger, newer homes, after all, can add precious property-tax money to city coffers and can potentially spruce up the neighborhood.

A Beverly Hills flats house worth $600,000 to $700,000, for example, can easily be transformed into a larger dwelling worth more than $1 million, “and the city’s the recipient of that,” said Mayor Les Bronte.

“Cities are living things, and if they don’t have some revitalization, they deteriorate,” said Redondo Beach’s Connelly. “So we do see some recycling of houses that have reached the end of their usefulness.”

The city manager concedes the revitalization process can be abrasive, especially in sections of his city where lots measure 25 feet by 100 feet. By the time you account for a 19-foot-wide, two-car garage and 3-foot setbacks on either side, the lot is filled.

“It’s a little snug,” he said.

Whenever neighbors have a problem with a contractor or construction crew, city officials urge them to contact their building department--not the police--as soon as possible, so they can nip any violations or sloppy practices in the bud.

“Quite frankly, they [constructions workers] are pigs,” Beverly Hills’ Bronte said.

“We’ll tell them, ‘Please don’t sit on the neighbor’s property to eat your lunch'--which they do to get away from the dust--'and leave your paper plates and trash there. Stop using their bushes as a toilet and don’t leave your trash everywhere.’ Those things happen.”

“Mostly we need to know about it, and we need to know about it right away,” Connelly said. “Are they always cooperative? Mostly, not always.”

South Bay contractor Craig Casner admits that neighbors “frequently” complain about a variety of construction-related issues. But, he said, “we try to work with neighbors.”

However, Manhattan Beach homeowner Tim Kelly didn’t find Casner too eager to work with him on a fence.

“From the get-go, I knew it was going to be hard because he decided he was going to build a new fence, and he didn’t ask; he announced,” Kelly said.

“I said it sounds like a good idea, but I’ve got a dog. His attitude was, ‘That’s your problem.’ That was my first impression, and it wasn’t favorable.”

Casner ended up building the fence entirely on his property with no further discussion with Kelly, who quickly abandoned plans to approach Casner about a major remodel job. Kelly calls the experience “a real lesson in building and a real lesson in PR”

Casner did not respond to repeated calls for reaction to Kelly’s comments. “Sometimes neighbors create their own problems,” Casner said in an earlier interview. “The bottom line is, we go in there, get the job done and try to keep out of people’s way.”

Other contractors have been known to strike deals with neighbors, offering to landscape or to repair driveways.

Redondo Beach resident Clyde Curran has been heartened by McNeill Construction’s offer to touch up his property, although he thinks the contractor has had his eye on Curran’s property for years.

In another case, a contractor built a deck to assuage hard feelings of another Redondo Beach couple.

Whenever there’s an impasse, officials refer residents to mediation, Small Claims Court or a lawyer for a possible lawsuit if neither of the first two options works out.

Just in case mediation doesn’t work, Burton, with Dispute Resolution Services, advises homeowners to document examples when contractors don’t clean up, in order to bolster their cases for legal purposes or for complaints to the state licensing board.

Unhappy neighbors can also bar contractors and their crews from trespassing on their property, said Gary Giesler, a real estate attorney with the downtown Los Angeles firm Knapp, Marsh, Jones & Doran.

“They can build a fence without getting on your property, although it’s a lot easier if they do,” Giesler said. “Generally, a neighbor will accommodate that if people are reasonable.”

Homeowners Can Sue

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Lawyers say homeowners can also threaten suit for damages under trespass and nuisance laws as long as they don’t mind paying $500 to $1,500 in start-up legal fees.

“The majority of these cases are designed to get the attention of the contractor,” said attorney Bill Conkle of Conkle & Olesten in Santa Monica. “Sometimes the contractor says buzz off, and you need to up the ante.”

But in the end, most of these cases don’t go to trial. Nor do all neighbors have bad experiences.

Now that the house next door is nearly done, Beverly Hills homeowner Helen Fabe wishes someone would take a crack at the one across the street. She considers nearby construction on La Cienega Boulevard far more disruptive.

Other survivors just remind themselves that reconstruction occurs frequently during a real estate boom.

“The hammering is the sound of escalating property values,” said Redondo Beach homeowner Greg Hellwig.

Diane Garrett is a Redondo Beach freelance writer.


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