Tempest in a Chimney

The Hatfields and McCoys, S.B. Style

by Martha Sadler

Has a fireplace chimney ever been so passionately detested as the one that Scott and Katrina McCosker built at 1464 La Cima Road? A years-long dispute culminated at Tuesday afternoon’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting in a bruising final round — unless the neighbors decide to continue the fight in court. While Mayor Marty Blum called the disputed chimney an “abomination,” she and her fellow councilmembers felt they had no choice but to allow it to stand, a perpetual thorn in the sides of John and Kathy Cook, who can see it from practically every room in their house. To the Cooks, the 11-foot-tall chimney is a monument to arrogance and spite. To the McCoskers, it’s a fireplace on a deck overlooking a fabulous panoramic view of the coast.

The combatants arrived at the meeting armed with attorneys, timelines, and aerial photos of the structure. Representing the McCoskers was Steve Amerikaner, who was the attorney for the City of Santa Barbara before he began a more lucrative private practice specializing in developmental law. Amerikaner attempted to put the chimney into perspective, pointing out that it blocks only 3 percent of the Cooks’ 223-degree view. Moreover, he claimed that the McCoskers might have built not just a chimney, but an entire room over the deck, which would have nearly obliterated the view. He presented an Architectural Board of Review (ABR) timeline as evidence that neighbors had ample opportunity to object to the chimney and other aspects of the McCoskers’ renovations in a timely fashion.

Attorney Tony Fischer, representing the Cooks, charged that his clients did not understand the McCoskers’ plans until it was too late. Fischer argued that plans submitted to the ABR were misleading; unless the reader was trained in architectural drawings, they seemed to indicate a shorter chimney, he said. Insisting on this point, Fischer interrupted and gesticulated so much while Amerikaner and the councilmembers were speaking that the mayor warned she would send him to another room to watch the proceedings on TV unless he calmed down. Kathy Cook was even more emotional. The chimney “dominates every single room, 24/7,” she grimly informed the council, which had taken a field trip the day before to see it for themselves. “You guys all get to go home to some nice place,” added her husband, “and not have to look at it.” Several other neighbors expressed their disapproval of the chimney as well, describing it as “a god awful looking thing” and “an extra-large packing crate.” One charged that Santa Barbara “will look like a war zone if this is what you’ll permit.” The chimney in question is a masonry box with a steel flute, made by Isokern.

While Mayor Blum and Councilmembers Das Williams and Brian Barnwell agreed the chimney was an eyesore, Councilmember Roger Horton declined to comment. The remaining three councilmembers were absent Tuesday. Barnwell firmly reprimanded the McCoskers and Cooks for failing to resolve their differences in a more neighborly fashion. “I want to say to everybody, ‘Chill,’” he said. Barnwell added that the council could reject the McCoskers’ other proposed modifications conditional upon their removing the chimney, but felt that would be a childish “neener-neener-neener kind of thing,” not an indication that the other modifications deserve to be rejected. “Is that an ugly chimney?” he asked rhetorically. “No doubt about it.” Nevertheless, he concluded the chimney was built lawfully and had a right to stay. The city has to uphold its laws, Barnwell said, and a fair resolution was possible only through the neighbors’ cooperating with one another.

Williams agreed that granting the Cooks’ appeal would undercut the city’s due processes, though he wondered whether the architectural plans may have been “disingenuous.” He abstained from the vote and concluded that the city needs to strengthen its visual resource policies. Blum pointed out that the ABR has been reviewing residential buildings for only about a decade. “Not that that excuses what happened here,” she added. The ABR’s consent process involves only one boardmember, who reviews plans with the applicant’s architect and considers input from neighbors — if they care enough or are informed well enough to offer it. As every current ABR member denies any involvement in the chimney project, it remains unknown who first approved the chimney in July 2003.

Mayor Blum agreed with the councilmembers that the city had no legal reason to uphold the Cooks’ bid to remove the chimney, but admonished the McCoskers for leaving it there. “[It’s] just a terrible thing to do to your neighbors,” she said. “I’d get a barbecue grill if I were you.”

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