John Sullivan and Carrie Dennis are making lunch in their sunny, 1920s home perched atop a small hill in Beachwood Canyon. In the living room, their 2-year-old twins, Finneas and Atticus, play contentedly. Waddling around in diapers, the children are blissfully unaware of the drama surrounding them.
For the past year, Sullivan, a screenwriter, and Dennis, the widely known principal violist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, have been battling city building inspectors over what began as an effort to repair a 7-by-10-foot storage unit attached to the front of their home.
It has now turned into a logistical nightmare reaching as far as the Office of the Mayor and City Councilman Tom LaBonge.
Their problems began innocuously enough a few months after Sullivan and Dennis purchased their duplex — they live on top and tenants live below — in June 2011. In 2012, their neighbor, actor Bill Pullman, invited residents of the area to take part in a community orchard.
“We were inspired by him,” Sullivan says. They started landscaping their backyard, beginning with railroad-tie planters. But their plans quickly were cut short.
Sullivan and Dennis say that the neighbor just north of them — actress Jodi Long — called the city because she was concerned that the planters threatened the integrity of the hillside. (Long declined to comment.)
In March 2012, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety sent an inspector to check it out.
Inspector Sergio Rodriguez told Sullivan and Dennis to remove the planters — and they did so. “We didn't want to mess with the city, and we didn't want a problem with our neighbor,” Sullivan recalls.
But that wasn't the end of their problems. It was only the beginning.
A month later, Rodriguez returned to check on the planters. Sullivan says Rodriguez noticed that they were doing work on a water-damaged, 7-by-10-foot storage unit on the front of their home. Sullivan was fixing the damage and working to turn the small area into an entry to the house.
Rodriguez informed the couple that they had to stop working on it until they got a permit. So Sullivan got a $626 permit from Building and Safety and hired a contractor to finish the job.
Several months later, the couple got more bad news: An anonymous caller had phoned the city to report that their bottom rental unit was illegal. But it wasn't — a city employee found documents from the 1920s that identified the house as a duplex, and the renter was allowed to stay.
But not before Sullivan and Dennis were hit with two bizarre new blows.
During the city's probe into whether the longtime duplex was legal, building inspector Matt Kellerman determined that the ceiling in the living room had been unlawfully changed from gabled to flat.
Kellerman didn't accuse Sullivan and Dennis of making the changes. But Building and Safety, without finding out the home's history, required that the couple prove the ceiling was structurally sound.
Sullivan says he spent long hours researching old city documents, finally discovering that the ceiling that so concerned inspectors had been flat — since the 1930s.
“They're like the Mafia, but they don't do it with muscle, they do it with paperwork,” Dennis says.
Then city inspectors noticed that the original headache — the attached storage unit — was 7 feet from the hillside, an alleged violation of yet another city regulation, and one that the previous inspector hadn't mentioned.
The Department of Building and Safety issued a stop-work order on its own approved construction.
“They reneged on the permit and said I had to demolish the storage unit because it's too close to the hillside,” Sullivan says.
And yes, demolishing and rebuilding the unit would require a new city permit.
Sullivan wrote to the Department of Building and Safety, City Councilman Tom LaBonge and the Office of the Mayor, documenting the process in agonizing detail.
He managed to arrange what he hoped would be the great denouement: a meeting several weeks ago at which 10 people — including representatives of LaBonge, the mayor, key city departments and his own contractor — tried to sort out the problems.
“It was bizarre to have all those people there talking about a 7-by-10 storage room,” Sullivan says. “We ended up talking about the storage unit the whole time.”
The mayor's office could not be reached, and Building and Safety officials declined to comment on what unfolded.
Sullivan still doesn't know if he can finish the modest storage/entry space. He is rapidly losing faith in the city where he and his wife have built their dreams.
“They've made our lives a living hell for the past two years,” he says, “and they say they're sorry — but it's just empty words.”
The perplexed couple tries to make sense of why city inspectors seem to be going after them with zeal.
Musician Dennis, who is warm and welcoming, recalls losing her temper with Rodriguez when he told them to remove the railroad-tie planters. She wonders if her short outburst that day caused Rodriguez to relentlessly pursue their property.
“I probably shouldn't have gotten so upset,” she says, describing what the city has done to them since then as “an attack.”
Kevin McDonnell, an attorney who specializes in government and land-use law, says what Sullivan and Dennis are experiencing is not uncommon. The wearing down of a single property owner “happens a lot more often than you might think. Unfortunately, if someone complains about something, the building department has to respond to that complaint.”
Luke Zamperini, spokesman for Building and Safety, says, “We don't drive around looking for problems. … A neighbor called and said, 'My neighbors are down there cutting into the hillside that supports my property and I'm worried.' The inspector is supposed to go knock on the door and see what they are doing in the backyard.”
But Kevin Meechan, the contractor working on Sullivan and Dennis' storage unit, says the family is being singled out.
“There is a lot of bad behavior that is not getting reported” regarding homes, says Meechan, who works with Giammarco & Associates. “If the city went door to door in the Hollywood Hills, they would find an overwhelming number of similar cases. But because the system is driven by complaints, you have these selective families getting the full force of code enforcement — while others go about their business.”
Said another way, Angelenos can create misery for their neighbors.
Sullivan estimates that they have spent about $4,500 complying with city inspectors and another $47,000 on contractors. In an email detailing what the saga has cost, he writes, “This was a depressing exercise.”
One person who says he'd like to see it resolved is LaBonge, who sent a representative to Sullivan's meeting with city officials.
“My staff is engaged and is trying to resolve it,” LaBonge says. “I know that one of the greatest things in one's life is when you are able to buy a home and then spend the next two years renovating. I would like to be able to help.”
Yet even LaBonge can't make any promises. “I don't have all the facts at this moment,” he says. “We will try to help. … Sometimes we are very, very successful, and other times there's hurdles.”
Sullivan is trying to put the lost time and sense of being preyed upon behind him. “This is about my family,” he says. “I'm trying to protect them.”
Meechan, their contractor, says it is his “sincere hope and belief that the city could afford some reasonable compromise. … It is a flawed system, and it is a shame when isolated cases bring an unequal burden, and that's what's happening here.”
The ordeal has taken a toll on Dennis' outlook on home ownership, on dreaming big — and on the role of the city in people's lives.
“You think, 'I'm gonna buy a house,' like it's this huge thing, the American dream,” she says, “and then it gets screwed up by the government.”