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When parking gets personal

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Special to The Times

BACK in the 1970s, you could open a garage door -- manually, of course -- and find something quite extraordinary inside: a car or two. But you wouldn’t want to try that today, not without an avalanche beacon. The mountain of junk accumulated in there has exiled vehicles to the curb, and the byproduct is a boundary battle among neighbors jockeying for that ever-more-elusive urban resource: a place to park the car.

Though residential streets are public spaces, homeowners often view the curb in front of the house as their private domain. As more cars vie for a finite number of street spaces, tempers can flare, and the problem is likely to get worse. The tally of homes with three or more vehicles shot up 872% between 1969 and 2001, according to the most recent survey by the U.S. Department of Transportation. A UCLA study by anthropology professor Jeanne Arnold and architect Ursula Lang found that 75% of middle-class Angelenos no longer use garages for cars. The result: more cars parked out front, more grievances over blighted views from front windows and more complaints about blocked sight lines for cars pulling out of driveways. It’s the sense of trespass, however, that truly inflames territorial impulses.

“Parking is a huge issue between neighbors,” says attorney Emily Doskow, co-author of “Neighbor Law.” “People really get riled up about it. They get very attached to the space in front of their home and feel neighbors shouldn’t be able to park there.”

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An Arleta man, Alvaro Williamson, was convicted in February of shooting and killing neighbor Filimon Ramos, a father of four, after Ramos parked on the public street outside Williamson’s home in 2006. A homeowner in Richmond, Calif., fatally shot his neighbor in 2005 for parking vehicles along his curb on street-cleaning days.

Obviously, most cases never reach those extremes, but disputes do arise out of a belief that either the parkers or the parked-upon are entitled to the space, says Steve Sultanoff, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s graduate campus in Irvine. “They can’t see the other person’s viewpoint,” he says. “Their self-worth is challenged every time they don’t get what they want.”

In the Highland Park neighborhood of northeast Los Angeles, one homeowner has deployed orange traffic cones in an unsuccessful attempt to reserve the street space in front of her property. In West Hollywood, some residents have begun policing inefficient parkers by leaving notes on windshields that command: Stop hogging two spots.

For Yvette Knopp of Sylmar, the issue is access -- and her lack of it to the street.

Knopp lives in rustic Kagel Canyon, an enclave of cabin-like homes and horse stables. On a recent morning, four vehicles at her neighbor’s premises include a motor home and a wrecked Taurus parked permanently, it appears, in front of the garage. An SUV has its rear-end hanging out diagonally into the single-lane street.

Knopp says she scratched the side of her Camry on a cement pillar next to her driveway while trying to snake around one of those cars. The neighbors did not respond to a request for an interview, but Knopp’s husband has had words with them, she says. “It doesn’t seem to register with them. It’s like they’re in their own little bubble,” she says.

“It’s horrible. It’s like looking out at a junkyard. We live in a gorgeous place, and you look out your front window and all you see is cars.”

Condo owners and apartment dwellers are not immune to parking disputes either. Bonnie Russell, a publicist in Del Mar, says most people in her complex have converted their garages into gyms or stuffed them with junk. “There is a reasonable amount of guest parking here,” she says, “but there’s too many cars.”

THE neighborhood parking standoff has its roots in something basic: an uncontrolled urge to shop. Personal spending by Americans increased as much as 70% from 1979 to the late ‘90s, notes Juliet Schor in “The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer.”

An accumulation of belongings is partly why garage size has grown dramatically.

The percentage of U.S. houses with two- or three-car garages climbed from 39% in 1970 to 84% in 2005.

Homes have been super-sized too, with the average family residence ballooning to 2,434 feet in 2005, a 62% increase since 1970, according to the National Assn. of Home Builders. And yet we still need more space to hold our stuff. Not even 51,500 self-storage facilities operating nationwide can handle the overflow.

“It’s irrational. You have a $50,000 car on the street and junk worth at the most $1,000 cramming the garage,” says Barry Izsak, author of “Organize Your Garage in No Time” and a professional organizer whose firm charges $1,000 a day to help clients make their garages accessible to cars once again.

“The garage has become this wasteland for all the stuff we don’t know what to do with -- that pile of National Geographics, the broken VCR, the out-of-date printer, the rusty wheelbarrow. It’s a pretty expensive storage unit.”

The problem may start with clutter, but it ends with one of the more ancient human imperatives: territoriality. Intrude on someone’s primary territory of home, hearth and family, and you arouse the need to defend.

Curb space falls into the “secondary” territory category -- things we don’t own -- which causes more conflict because ownership is fuzzier. Like a late-night party or a barking dog next door, someone else’s chronically curbside car can seem like an assault on your own home.

Aggravation usually leads to the wrong approach in broaching the issue with the neighbor, experts say. Blame and anger only escalate the conflict.

SULTANOFF recommends “coming from a place of how it’s affecting you, not, ‘You’ve got to move your vehicles.’ ” Don’t use inflammatory language, he says.

“The reality is people are going to be living next to each other for 10 to 15 years,” says Alyson Markham Shultz, a mediation coordinator in the Pasadena office of Dispute Resolution Services, a nonprofit program of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. “That’s a pretty permanent relationship.”

From the outset, mediators can help to build trust. A call from an aggrieved neighbor is followed by a letter to the other party, requesting their side of the story and a meeting.

Kathryn Turk, community coordinator for Dispute Resolution Services’ West Hollywood office, says most people agree to mediation to put the problem behind them.

For a nominal cost -- $50 for three hours of professional mediation -- the parties get help crafting a solution.

“It’s amazing when people sit down with a third party how they can come up with their own resolution to the problem,” says Turk, who has produced signed agreements in as little as two days.

If neighbors knew how successful and cheap community mediation is, there might be a lot less heartburn in the City of Angels, not to mention lower legal bills. About 90% of mediation agreements are still in force six months later, says Irvin Foster, executive director of the National Assn. for Community Mediation in Washington, D.C.

Turk, whose office is largely funded by the city of West Hollywood, says her success rate is about the same.

“If someone tells you what to do, you might not do it,” Foster says. “But if you tell yourself you’ll stick to this agreement, you’ll do it.”

home@latimes.com


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