Council resolves dispute over illegal deck

A bitter neighborhood dispute spilled over into City Council chambers on Monday, with a group of neighbors asking council members to force the owner of a Pembury Place home to reverse changes to that property made without required city permits.

Ultimately, council members decided 4-1 to take a middle-ground approach. In exchange for being able to keep his deck and other changes to the property, they ordered homeowner Richard Cohen to permanently maintain foliage and landscaping to screen views and privacy of the neighbors below.

Cohen also will have to pay penalties for not seeking permits before starting work.

Flintridge Avenue residents Garry Stewart, Marilyn Freytag and Bela Lugosi, son of the Hollywood icon of the same name, claimed neighbor Cohen violated their privacy rights and local law by failing to obtain permits before installing a deck that breaches hillside setback requirements and overlooks their backyards from the hillside above.

Cohen said he was not aware permits were needed to rebuild and lengthen an existing deck that had fallen into a dangerous level of disrepair, and he refuted claims that the deck and other changes impacted his neighbors’ enjoyment of their homes.

The lengthy public hearing at times devolved into unsubstantiated claims of uncivil behavior on either side. It also focused on ongoing disputes over Cohen’s efforts to change landscaping of the property. Discussion eventually revealed that Stewart and Cohen were already involved in a protracted legal battle over rights to a small pocket of land between their homes.

It quickly became apparent that Stewart and Cohen were the primary adversaries, with Freytag expressing worry about preserving backyard trees and Lugosi, an attorney, limiting concern to the project’s lack of building permits.

“This is the city’s problem with Mr. Cohen, as I see it. I’m just bringing it to the council’s attention,” Lugosi said.

The rancor fueling what really was a hearing about the city’s hillside-development ordinance and permitting process was not lost on Councilman Dave Spence.

“This is a tough case for me because everybody here that’s involved has been close friends [to me] for a number of years. To be pulled into a little bit of a tense neighborhood dispute has been difficult,” he said.

A previous Planning Commission decision had also sided with Cohen and did not include the strict tree maintenance requirements ordered by the council.

Councilman Greg Brown, who cast the lone vote in opposition, said he would not have approved changes made by Cohen, even if petitioned to do so before the changes were made, over concerns about impacts to oak trees and the deck’s encroachment into required setbacks.

Other council members said they felt the deck did not appear to impose on neighbors’ privacy — Spence going so far as to say it was nearly invisible from Stewart’s property — and that its length was a reasonable fit for the home, which was built before current setback requirements.

Cohen said he was pleased by the meeting’s outcome and had not intended to flout permit requirements.

“Honestly, I felt that replacement of my old deck did not require a permit,” he said.

City Hall has been involved in the dispute since July, when Planning Director Robert Stanley first denied Cohen’s request to obtain after-the-fact approval for his new deck and Cohen filed an appeal to the Planning Commission.

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