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Neighbors Force Cutback at Home for Alcoholics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Actor William Shatner has purchased a $775,000 Westside house for use as a residential recovery center for alcoholic women in honor of his late wife--who drowned 18 months ago in an alcohol-related accident.

But neighborhood complaints about its location in an upscale area between Cheviot Hills and Beverlywood have prompted Los Angeles officials to reduce the center’s occupancy by more than half, just as its first residents begin moving in.

Instead of two dozen occupants, the Nerine Shatner Friendly House will be limited to 11, according to the city Department of Building and Safety.

The reduction has dismayed Shatner, star of “Star Trek” and other television series.

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“This is a shock. They were planning for 24 women,” he said.

“The main source for rehabilitation done in these homes is the connection between the people living there. It’s not so much what they learn from external sources, but from themselves.”

Recovery center operators said they are continuing with long-term plans for the women’s refuge on Castle Heights Avenue, despite the scale-back in size.

“If we can help just one person, that gift is worthwhile,” said Peggy Albrecht, executive director of the 50-year-old Friendly House, which has another location, in Koreatown, and is Los Angeles’ oldest home for recovering women alcoholics.

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Nerine Shatner spent a month at Friendly House’s original Normandie Avenue residential center before her death Aug. 9, 1999, while swimming at home in Studio City.

Shatner discovered her lifeless body at the bottom of their backyard pool. An autopsy showed that the 40-year-old had drowned after being knocked unconscious when she dove in and struck her head on the bottom.

She had a blood-alcohol level of 0.27%, which would be more than three times the legal limit for driving, according to the pathology report.

Shatner established the Nerine Shatner Memorial Fund to benefit the nonprofit Friendly House a short time after her death.

“I wanted to salvage some meaning out of all that experience. I thought the best way to do that would be in Nerine’s name to help other people,” he said.

“The Friendly House has a success rate that is very impressive. Although my wife was not a success story coming out of it, there are many,” he said.

“Nerine said to me frequently that when she was able to overcome this disease to the extent she could, she wanted to help other people,” he recalled. “Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to gain the upper hand. But in her memory this house stands for a courageous attempt at overcoming a dreadful disease.”

Shatner said the Westside setting was chosen as an alternative to the grittiness of Friendly House’s aging Normandie Avenue site.

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“It’s been used a lot and it’s in a neighborhood that is a little intimidating. It’s not a residential setting, as we know it, and the new one is. A friendly setting for the Friendly House is extremely important.”

Fliers left on doorsteps invited nearby homeowners to a Jan. 14 ribbon-cutting attended by Shatner. Not everyone offered a friendly welcome when the neighborhood learned of the center’s pending arrival, however.

Some worried about the effect of having 24 adults living in one house. They wondered about noise from the house and potential parking congestion caused by weekend visitors.

They soon discovered that there is no law against the operation of a recovery home in a residential area. In fact, neither the state nor the city regulates what are called “sober living” houses.

City officials suggest that as many as 3,000 such homes may exist in Los Angeles. That is a guess, they say, because such facilities do not have to register with anyone.

The city building department became involved at the Castle Heights site when nearby residents complained to City Councilman Michael Feuer that 24 occupants would be too many.

After checking the size and bedroom and exit configurations of the five-bedroom, 3,367-square-foot structure, city inspectors set the maximum occupancy at 11, said Rochelle Ventura, chief field deputy for Feuer.

The general guideline is that there can be one occupant for every 300 square feet, Ventura said.

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Relieved neighbors say that’s a size the area can probably live with.

“Some people are still angry, particularly that this sort of facility could move in without licensing,” said Julia Maher, president of the Castle Heights Neighborhood Assn. “I personally think that [Friendly House] is a responsible foundation that wants to work with the neighborhood.”

Steve Siegel, who has lived for 26 years behind the house purchased by Shatner, praised the actor’s intentions.

“I’m not wild about it being there. But I’m 13 times more happy with 11 than with 24,” he said.

Shatner, 69, who remarried two weeks ago, said he hopes Los Angeles relaxes its occupancy edict after the facility proves that it is a positive addition to the community.

“The people who will be coming to Friendly House are souls in deep need and their desire is to help themselves,” he said. “The last thing in the world they want is trouble, noise, congestion. This is a group of people searching themselves, not the outside.

“Friendly House will fit right in to the neighborhood,” he said.


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