A short and winding road leads to a long, nasty feud
Harmony is what’s eluding Hollywood’s Elusive Drive.
An escalating squabble between a celebrity photographer and an actor who live across from each other on the narrow hillside street has led to a flurry of city investigations, lawsuits and finger-pointing.
On one side is Jim Steinfeldt, who is known for his album cover and magazine fashion and entertainment industry advertising photos. On the other is Michael Massee, a well-known character actor who portrays villains and heavies.
Steinfeldt contends Massee has built retaining walls and a stairway entry that stick into Elusive Drive’s right-of-way and force cars to squeeze around a dangerous curve.
Massee suggests that Steinfeldt is retaliating for being asked to help pay for the recent paving of the street by peppering the city with complaints that Massee and his wife are violating regulations ranging from ignoring leash laws to not bringing in the rubbish containers after trash-pickup day.
The asphalting of an 800-foot strip of Elusive Drive three years ago was supposed to have cemented relations between the two, who live on its dead-end cul-de-sac.
Carved by hand more than 80 years ago around a steep hill above Laurel Canyon Boulevard, the dirt road -- more like a driveway, actually -- was dedicated as a public street in 1929.
It was still a gravel lane when Massee and his wife Ellen moved in 11 years ago and when Steinfeldt arrived in 2001.
About 10 feet wide, the unpaved road lacked a guardrail and was a challenge to visitors and to those creeping along it at night and in rainy weather. A steep drop-off next to it extends several hundred feet to the bottom of Laurel Canyon.
“Once, in 1999, I backed the side of my car off the road. It was scary,” said Ellen Massee, the mother of a 9-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. “I called AAA, and they wouldn’t come down the road to pull me back up because it was too narrow. I had some friends come pull me out with a winch.”
Heavy rains that washed out part of Elusive Drive in 2005 were the final straw. When city workers bridged the washout with a temporary steel plate and announced they could do nothing more, the Massees decided to initiate a paving project.
The pair had hoped the three other homeowners who use the street would share in the costs, but only one agreed to the idea. So the Massees proceeded anyway, eventually taking out a loan to cover the $90,000 bill for the 2005 paving and construction of a wooden guardrail along the road’s edge.
When they sought to recover some of the paving expense from the city the next year, they learned they would have to sue the city -- as well as all neighboring landowners.
“We were forced to name anybody with property adjacent to the road in the lawsuit. It made us ill,” Ellen Massee said.
Earlier this year, the suit was settled in Los Angeles County Superior Court without either the city or neighboring property owners being required to pay. Steinfeldt, however, said his attorney costs were $60,000.
The filing of the lawsuit prompted Steinfeldt and others to take a critical look at the paving project. Several complained about the quality of the work and its effect on hillside drainage.
Steinfeldt, noticing that the new guardrail seemed to squeeze the narrow street even more, checked street survey maps for the area.
They depicted Elusive Drive as having a 20-foot-wide easement.
The maps showed the easement cuts through a hillside and directly across the front patio and lawn of the Massees’ home, Steinfeldt said.
The lawn and patio are wrapped in a decorative, cactus-lined retaining wall that curves above Elusive Drive and helps frame a sweeping view of Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles.
Steinfeldt complained that city officials issued a notice that “all encroachments” be removed two years ago but Massee did not comply.
“I’ve talked to him many times. He basically says they’re there and it would be very expensive to remove them,” Steinfeldt said of the wall and hillside areas shown to be intruding into the street’s right-of-way.
So Steinfeldt turned up the heat, reporting Massee to the city for such things as letting his two dogs run free, leaving out his garbage cans, not having required off-street parking for his cars and doing construction work on Sundays.
“I’ve e-mailed, faxed and called maybe 300 times over the past few years. He has taken over a public street and uses it as his own,” said the 50-year-old photographer, whose subjects have included the Rolling Stones, Nirvana, Madonna, Blink-182 and Tina Turner. “Elusive Drive remains as obstructed today as it was 27 months ago.”
A spokeswoman for the city’s Bureau of Street Services said the retaining wall removal order was canceled after further investigation concluded that it was not a hazard to motorists or inconsistent with other walls in the canyon area.
Across the street, the Massees stood on the disputed patio as they explained how it and the retaining wall have been there since the home was built in 1952. When it was damaged 15 years ago by the Northridge earthquake, the city issued a permit to its previous owner to repair it.
A sturdily latched gate now keeps their family dogs Rosie and George corralled. They spent $3,000 to remove an abandoned carport-like structure that Steinfeldt complained about from city property next to their lot, they said.
Ellen Massee said the couple did the best they could with the road. “It would have taken a couple of million dollars” to build it to highway standards, she said.
“The city doesn’t want to be dragged into Elusive Drive again,” said her 56-year-old husband, known for his roles on the shows “24" and “Revelations” and in movies such as “Se7en” and “The Crow.”
“They didn’t have GPS back then,” which led early Los Angeles subdividers to draw arbitrary lines for “paper streets” common when hillsides were being divided into parcels, he said.
“This street could be paradise if we all got along.”
For now, that feeling is elusive.