Trim Your Dog

FICUS FRACAS OR HOW LOWE CAN YOU GO? Recent
events call to mind the ancient philosophical riddle: If a hedge is
clipped in the wilds of Montecito without its celebrity owner’s
consent and the News-Press isn’t there to report it, did it really
happen? I can assure you I was not there last summer when, under
the mistaken understanding that he had permission, Jim Neuman
trespassed onto the property of actor Rob Lowe, his Padaro Lane
neighbor, to trim the hedge that blocked Neuman’s million-dollar
coastal view.

Once Neuman found out he didn’t have permission, he promised not
to do it again and hasn’t. However, I was there last Wednesday
morning when Judge James W. Brown rejected Lowe’s argument that he
needed nothing less than a temporary restraining order to keep
Neuman, his wife, Susan, and his 82-year-old mother-in-law, Rowena
“Doodie” Taylor, from sneaking back into his yard — presumably in
the dead of a moonless night — with the intent of hacking back his
offending ficus. So was Independent photographer Paul Wellman, whom
Judge Brown had allowed to shoot the proceedings despite the
objections of Barry Capello, Lowe’s attorney. Even though Capello
acknowledged in advance that neither Lowe nor his wife would be in
court, he insisted the presence of a photographer might “foment a
media frenzy” that would adversely affect the Lowes’ privacy. If
only it were that easy. As it was, the so-called media frenzy was
restricted to Wellman, myself, and the Daily Sound’s ubiquitous
Chris Meagher, who roused himself from his sick bed to chronicle
the occasion. Conspicuous by their absence were any representatives
from the News-Press. But that was to be expected. After all, it was
Lowe’s objections to having his address published in a News-Press
article detailing his dispute with neighbors of his Picacho Lane
property — where he hoped to build his dream house — that triggered
the series of events that precipitated the ongoing melt-down at
what’s touted as the oldest daily paper in California.

Contrary to what some have suggested, this hedge war is not news
solely because of the Lowes’ glitterati status. The fact that the
Lowes have been accused of view extortion by two separate neighbors
in two separate disputes within the span of six months makes it
news. The fact that Lowe was a prominent player in the Homeowners
Defense Fund, a group of exceedingly well-heeled NIMBYs affronted
by the prospect of state-mandated affordable housing requirements,
makes the conflict even more newsworthy. (Lowe is reportedly no
longer active with the homeowners’ group.)

I can’t tell you how disappointing it was to actually encounter
Doodie Taylor and the Neumans in Judge Brown’s courtroom. Based on
Capello’s pleadings, I was expecting something out of the pages of
Soldier of Fortune — die-hard monkey-wrenchers dressed in camo
outfits, faces smudged black, and armed with high-powered hedge
trimmers. Instead, Doodie seemed like Montecito old-school to the
max, a study of dignified elegance and reserve. Jim Neuman looked
like the sort of guy who might give conservative financial advice
to people with eight-figured assets, and Susan came across as
someone with stories to tell but too much sense to tell them.

But where were the Girls Gone Wild vixens — detailed in the
Lowes’ lawsuit — who sunbathed topless in the Neumans’ yard,
getting drunk on beer bongs while the Lowe’s children — and their
friends — looked on in fascinated horror? (No wonder the Lowes
needed the privacy of a hedge.) Nowhere to be seen, I’m afraid. I
asked Doodie and the Neumans about this later, and they insisted
the Lowes totally distorted the true picture for strategic, if
slimy, purposes. According to them, there was, in fact, a party
attended by a handful of young women — all over 21 — where some
drinking and sunbathing did occur. In the course of that
sunbathing, Doodie said some of the women unhooked their bikini top
straps, but only while laying on their bellies. As to the wildness
of the party, Susan Neuman insisted it was over by 8 p.m. I called
Dr. James Swift of Cottage Hospital — who submitted a letter on the
Lowes’ behalf describing the sunbathing as “unconscionable” and
“indecent” — to see if Doodie’s story held up. I also called Mark
Melchiori of Melchiori Construction, who submitted a similar, if
less colorful, letter into the court record about topless
beer-bonging. Neither Swift nor Melchiori ever called back. For the
record, Capello did — repeatedly — but we never managed to
connect.

According to Doodie and the Neumans, the real story is that the
Lowes erected the view-blocking ficus hedge to achieve bargaining
leverage with the Neumans in their ongoing land-use squabble about
an addition the Lowes hope to build off their deck. Doodie has
opposed any such addition because given the geometry of their
yards, it would block her view of the coast. Before the Lowes’
house was constructed — and well before they bought it — Doodie had
succeeded in getting a prohibition of any such view-blocking
additions written into the county building permit’s conditions of
approval. Almost from the day the Lowes bought the property, they
tried getting county permission to build some sort of shade
structure there, but got nowhere. Failing that, they erected a
tent, which also blocks the Neumans’ view, and which the county has
three times decreed to be an illegal structure because it violates
the permit by which the Lowes’ house was built. The most recent
such decree was issued last Wednesday. But when it comes to
enforcing such decrees, the county has been a paper tiger.

The Neumans’ attorney, Derek Westen, termed the Lowes’ ficus “a
spite hedge,” designed to bring the Neumans and Doodie to their
knees; if they allow the addition, the Lowes will remove the hedge.
That sounds a lot like the spat between the Lowes and the Glucks on
Picacho Lane. The Glucks objected that the house the Lowes proposed
was way too big and would block their view; the Lowes planted “a
hedge” of redwoods that also happened to block the Glucks’ view.
After raising a considerable stink, the Glucks have now settled
with the Lowes. Could all this just be a coincidence? It’s
possible. But is it a news story? Without a doubt. Naturally, no
one read about it in the pages of the News-Press, whose owner
reportedly enjoyed Thanksgiving with the Lowes. I’d suggest that if
the Lowes want to avoid unwanted publicity, maybe they shouldn’t
sue their neighbors.

In the meantime, ask not for whom the ficus tolls; it tolls for
thee.

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