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Land-use saga of 'Flintstone House' reveals pitfalls in pursuing real estate development dreams

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Commentary

Geoffrey Murry is a partner with San Francisco-based law firm Ad Astra Law Group, LLP. His practice focuses on all aspects of real estate litigation, including disputes among neighbors, developers, owners, tradespeople, buyers and sellers, and lenders and borrowers. He can be reached at gmurry@astralegal.com.

A dispute between property owner Florence Fang and the town of Hillsborough, a small, exclusive enclave in the eastern-facing hillsides of San Mateo County, the site of a locally famous “Flintstone House,” represents a stark lesson in how not to undertake improvements to real property, whether commercial or, in this instance, residential.

‘Flintstones’ controversy

The town has filed a lawsuit again the owner Fang regarding improvements at the property since it was purchased in May 2017. The lawsuit seeks compliance with an October 2018 order by the town’s Administrative Hearing Panel, which found that the owner violated several sections of the town’s municipal code. Those violations, in the form of extensive landscaping, a new deck and a retaining wall, constitute a public nuisance. Per the panel, those improvements were performed without the benefit of permitting by the Hillsborough Planning Division.

Additionally, the owner’s decorative choices are very particular and include dinosaur and other wildlife figures, oversized mushrooms, and letters spelling out Fred Flintstone’s famous declaration, “Yabba Dabba Do!” all visible by travelers heading north on Interstate 280 toward San Francisco.

The home’s neighbors do not appear to share her appreciation for the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon or her desire to turn her property into a little slice of Bedrock, and have provided vocal opposition at public hearings.

Thus far, the owner has filed a cross-complaint alleging denial of free speech rights and discrimination against her based on her heritage and religious beliefs.

Community standards

As stated in the Administrative Hearing Panel’s order, Hillsborough’s Architecture and Design Review Board exists to address concerns about the “nature, quality and extent of proposed improvements” by local homeowners, its stated purpose being: “To promote the orderly and harmonious development of the town and enhance the desirability of and historic quality of life” for Hillsborough’s residents.

The board evaluates design choices based on the Residential Design Guidelines promulgated by the City Council. Topics addressed in the guidelines include the design of roofs, facades, windows and doors, etc. Landscape design is also very much within the board’s ambit.

In municipalities with commercial zoning, design review boards also exercise control over commercial design choices to ensure that the structures intended for business or commercial purposes fit in with the nature and quality of existing structures and other improvements.

Marin County, for example, has advisory or design-review boards for the Kentfield, Strawberry and Tamalpais neighborhoods. Those boards act as liaisons to the Marin County Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission and the community itself.

Tips for compliance

Where did Fang go wrong in turning her hillside home into a manifestation of all things Flintstonian? Whether one is considering improvements to commercial or residential property, Fang’s approach can only be considered counterproductive and likely to fail.

First and most importantly, proper planning is crucial. Make sure you are working with a licensed contractor who understands and respects the applicable permitting requirements of your locale.

You do not want to invest money in time and materials, only to discover that you need to tear out your beloved landscaping, your new deck or your 8-foot wrought-iron Tyrannosaurus rex because you didn’t get the proper permits in advance. An approach like this, in the commercial context, inevitably means longer timelines for development and can lead to lost profits and, potentially, lawsuits from stakeholders — for example, tenants who have signed leases but are unable to take possession because a municipality will not issue permits or certificates of completion.

Commentary

Geoffrey Murry is a partner with San Francisco-based law firm Ad Astra Law Group, LLP. His practice focuses on all aspects of real estate litigation, including disputes among neighbors, developers, owners, tradespeople, buyers and sellers, and lenders and borrowers. He can be reached at gmurry@astralegal.com.

Architecture and Design Review Boards, which operate under varying designations at both the county and municipal levels, may seem like petty dictators obsessed with the maintenance of Stepford-like continuity and homogeneity.

But regardless of a property owner’s opinion of these bodies, the review boards do not like to have their will thwarted or their recommendations ignored. With the police power of local authorities behind them, they can make noncompliant property owners’ lives very uncomfortable. These bodies are intended to ensure that local property values remain high, that residents are not subjected to neighbors’ extreme or controversial design choices, and that their towns remain appealing places to do business, live and play.

Try to exercise a little objectivity in your design choices. Look at your neighborhood to get a feel for how neighbors have chosen to decorate and improve their properties. Get the opinion of design professionals before making any drastic changes.

Design professionals are often well versed in the local design guidelines and can help you make good decisions that won’t give rise to citizen and governmental resistance.

While citizen input is often given more weight in relation to residential construction, community standards will definitely guide approval related to commercial properties, as well.

Unfortunately for Fang, not every town is ready for a life-sized homage to the quaint prehistory of the fictional town of Bedrock and its first family, the Flintstones.

Even if Fang had sought permitting approval for certain of her landscaping elements, it’s likely that the Architecture and Design Review Board would have put its collective foot down on the parts of her folly and fantasia that other residents found jarring or discomfiting.

But any hope that she might have had to reach some kind of détente with the local authorities might be forever dashed by her cavalier attitude toward the jurisdiction that those authorities have over her and her prized hillside home.

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