louis martin
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Ukiah, Mendocino County--

The dream of Ted and Marjorie Berlincourt of Virginia may have come to an abrupt end on Tuesday at 2:30 PM in the Mendocino County Supervisors Chambers. By a 3-to-2 vote, the supervisors denied an appeal that would have allowed the retired physicist and his wife to build their dream house on the last uninterrupted viewscape at the southern end of the coastal town of Elk. Though the board left open the option of locating the house on a less conspicuous part of the property, the former Los Alamos Laboratory physicist vowed to "fight to the end" to build the house exactly where he wants.

In a lengthy presentation before the supervisors and a packed chamber, Ted Berlincourt, a tall, thin man dressed in suit, tie, and black leather shoes, charged State Parks, county planner Gary Berrigan, vocal private residents, and the press with making false statements about the proposed project. Berrigan rejected the plan back in August, and State Parks had joined many residents in opposing it.

Marjorie Berlincourt, a little woman with large, dark-rimmed glasses, sat bolt upright running an overhead projector, as her husband pointed at drawings and charts with a metal, telescoping pointer. For just a moment the county chambers took on the appearance of a government research lab.

Ted Berlincourt charged the planning department with putting out false information to the public when it published a document that showed his house would include maid's quarters. Originally, according to planner Berrigan, the plan had included maid's quarters; later the maid's quarters had been renamed as another bedroom. An updated version sent out to the public apparently did not reflect this change in nomenclature.

The house had originally been for 5,000 square feet. When it was reduced to 3,100 square feet, this revision did not get to the public in a timely fashion either, Berlincourt charged.

But he went beyond these specific charges, claiming to be personally targeted by a "mean-spirited" campaign against him.

"We have worked 87 years and lost 17 months of our retirement," an angry Berlincourt said.

Berlincourt claimed that the plan for the project "more than meets the coastal guidelines."

The planning department's main objection to the project was its lack of "subordination" to the setting. The Local Coast Plan in Mendocino county designates Greenwood-Elk as "Highly Scenic," requiring that development there be "subordinate to the natural setting."

The proposed project is also adjacent to Greenwood State Beach, and California State Parks had also raised objections to the proposed project. Said Gary Shannon, Landscape Architect and Park Planner with State Parks, "There are uninterrupted views along the coast line, but they are becoming vanishing commodities." He said he was skeptical about a proposed plan to conceal the project with vegetation, and said he was worried because the project is "precedent-setting."

But the principle architect of the project, Michael Levanthal of Levanthal-Schlosser & Associates, questioned the Planning Department's "vision" for the county. He contrasted private property rights with the "tyranny of the coastal commission," calling the Berlincourts "victims of the county."

One of the key questions of the day was in fact private property rights and how far they go.

Barbara McKnight, who lives south of the town of Elk in a house she admitted would probably no longer meet the Local Coastal Plan requirements, argued for private property rights. "As long they are following all the rules," said McKnight, "they shouldn't be stopped. They've paid taxes all these years."

The Berlincourts have owned the property for 15 years with the idea of building a retirement house there. Since the purchase of the property, a Local Coastal Plan went into effect in Mendocino county, which some argue is subjective and more restrictive than the California Coastal Commission intended. Bud Kamb, a Mendocino realtor who specializes in securing permits for development, argued that there are "terrible inconsistencies" in the permitting process in Mendocino county.

While the Berlincourts have made some concessions to the planning department, there is one they say they won't make--that of moving the house from the north-west location, which gives them a white-water view of the ocean, to the south-east part of the property, where it would be visible from the highway but not from Greenwood State Beach. That, however, is exactly what the Planning Department, State Parks, and a number of local residents and inn owners would like them to do.

Eleanor Lewallan, a Comptche resident who collects sea weed at Greenwood State Park, called the beach "a wild space in a cluttered landscape."

She said she was threatened in a letter from the Berlincourts, who own part of the beach where she collects sea weed for her business. The letter, which she read before the chamber, requested that she write a letter to the Planning Department stating that she no longer objected to the Berlincourt Project. The Berlincourts did not deny the authenticity of the letter.

One of the objections to the house has been its size--3,100 square feet--and the fact that it is two stories. Said Alice Flores, a resident who lives to the south, "This house is not modest."

Berlincourt objected that another house--two stories and of greater elevation--was recently approved in the "Highly Scenic" zone to the south. But the house to the south, though located in "historical ag land," is not in a prominent location. But even so, according to Berrigan, some adjustment of the location was required to accommodate the house to its agricultural environment.

Berlincourt made a number of technical presentations designed to show that the proposed house would only obstruct a very small portion of the visual field--about the size of a "toothpick," according to mathematical calculations he had made--but he appeared frustrated by his audience. He said he has made many technical presentations before learned gatherings, but about Mendocino county he said, "It is pretty difficult in dealing in places like these."

The hearing began at 9:00 AM. At 2:30 PM supervisor Charles Peterson, in whose district the proposed project lies, made the motion to reject the appeal. He was supported by supervisor Liz Henry and board president Seiji Sugawara, who said he was sympathetic to Berlincourt, being a man of science himself. Sugawara is an electrical engineer.

But he said, "Things are not objective." Different people have different perceptions of situations, he said. He said he was "saddened" in this particular situation because the Berlincourts were "not respecting the perceptions of other people." His was the swing vote that decided the matter.

Conservatives John Pinches and Frank McMichael voted to approve the appeal.



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