There isn’t much traffic on Lucerne Street, a small outlet off of Highway 1 in northern Cayucos. It’s a quiet, seaside neighborhood, with imposing post-modern houses and condos creeping along the cliffs that fall into the churning waters of the Pacific, just north of the Cayucos Pier.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
The neighborhood is characterized mainly by cars with surfboard racks and an abandoned welding shop at the turnoff to Lucerne. But at the end of the street, where the last house sits before the neighborhood opens into the state-owned Estero Bluffs, there’s an empty home, surrounded by chain link fencing, under 24-hour video surveillance, painted bright blue and pink, and with a small black sign posted above the front door: “Asshole’s neighbor.”
This is the type of warfare only the suburbs can unleash.
Dr. Marshall Lewis is profoundly Brooklyn, the type of guy who sounds like he was born in an East Coast deli. A big, solid man who gesticulates a lot when he talks, he’s actually a professional surgeon.
In spring 2010, he applied to demolish an existing residence and antique shop on Lucerne and replace it with a 5,300-square-foot, two-story house.
Fast forward to June 21 of this year, when Lewis glared at SLO County supervisor Bruce Gibson after being asked if he was willing to delay a permitting process to build his house and modify it to comply with some concerns.
“I don’t want to waste more money on people not giving me reasons for things,” Lewis said, stressing he’d followed every design rule he’d been dealt. “It’s not the way business is done in this country; it’s not the appropriate way business is done in this county.”
This is where Lewis and Gibson clashed. Indeed, this is where Lewis’ project jabbed a fragile nerve in Cayucos, a town sensitive to incongruity between codified land-use rules and community character.
“My bottom line is this is simply too much house for this particular parcel in this particular space,” Gibson said of the project.
Ultimately, Gibson was the only county supervisor who voted to deny Lewis’ project. As the supervisor whose district includes Cayucos, he said that while there are land-use rules to be followed, county decision makers are allowed to use their own discretion. And Lewis’ proposed home, Gibson concluded, would clash with the character of Cayucos.
Neighbor reactions—at least those presented at the June 21 Board of Supervisors hearing—were slightly more mixed. Though several neighbors condemned the house for going against the quirky Cayucos feel, others sympathized with a man they said had bent over backwards and still been screwed.
The project began with several hearings before the county Planning Commission. Lewis’ proposal required a variance so he could intrude on a property setback in the front, essentially because the oddly shaped parcel—and the fact that the backyard is cliff and ocean—made it necessary to push the building closer to the sidewalk, he claimed.
Planning commissioners denied the project in August 2010 based on design issues that included an underground garage and trees that would have to be removed during construction. Lewis appealed to the Board of Supervisors in November 2010 and was told to go back to his design, consult with the Cayucos Advisory Council, and make modifications that would generally reduce the size of the structure.
What Lewis came back with was a 4,555-square-foot house that was about nine feet less in width and with a garage about half as large as the original proposal. However, county planners had still recommended the project be denied in accordance with the Planning Commission’s decision.
In the end, Lewis got his approval, but it’s likely done little to mend wounds inflicted along the way.
“His version will be he’s been very cooperative,” said Larry Fishman, who chairs the land use committee for the Cayucos Advisory Council. “Our version will be he’s been very uncooperative.”
Fishman added that Cayucos residents don’t want to be Los Angelized. He recalled the Frank DeCicco mixed-use motel project approved by a majority of county supervisors in 2009 (and currently stalled in court) that also clashed with neighbors who thought the structure was too big and out of character with the community.
Lewis had sent his project back through the advisory council with hopes of it coming out as something that melded his dream with the community’s character. But things didn’t go well, and in the meantime the existing structure was repainted from a canary-yellow antique gift shop to a neon eyesore with a sign above the door that clearly irked neighbors.
Carol Baptiste of the Cayucos Advisory Council told county supervisors Lewis was asked in writing to remove the sign, but that he ignored the requests. Some vacationers decided they wouldn’t rent a vacation home in the neighborhood as long as the sign remained, she said, adding that Lewis “cares nothing about how our community is perceived.”
Though Lewis was originally willing to be interviewed for this story, he later declined at the advice of his attorney, because he’s also in the middle of a lawsuit with his neighbors. In October 2010, Lewis filed a lawsuit against two of his neighbors alleging that they “caused a certain structure consisting of a retaining wall be built” on his property. He’s claiming $137,500 in general damages and another $100,000 in punitive damages.
Just before Lewis’ project was tentatively approved June 21 after nearly two hours of discussion—it’s scheduled to come back for final approval on Aug. 9—Supervisor Adam Hill asked, “What’s the chance of you actually becoming more neighborly?”
In his thick accent, Lewis responded, “I have never—anywhere I’ve lived—been known as not being neighborly.” ∆
News Editor Colin Rigley once stood next to someone who was wearing an ‘I’m with stupid’ T-shirt. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.