It’s an eye-popping proposal: a 166-foot-high fence – as tall as a midrise office tower – to keep errant golf balls from flying off a golf course. And it’s at the center of a spat between the famed Los Angeles Country Club and developers looking to build two luxury condo towers on the old Robinsons-May site next door in Beverly Hills.

The country club operates the 103-year-old golf course straddling Wilshire Boulevard just west of Beverly Hills. It wants to build the 800-foot-long mesh fence – with palm fronds on top – near the 16th hole of the south course to keep wayward balls from hitting the luxury condos, thereby shielding itself from potential costly lawsuits.

But the condo development company, BH Wilshire International of Coral Gables, Fla., says the fence is way too high and will block the view for prospective condo owners, making the residences harder to sell. The fence would be more than five times the 30-foot height allowed under the city of L.A.’s zoning code.

Late last year, after two city of L.A. planning bodies approved a variance to allow the super-tall fence, BH Wilshire filed an appeal to block its construction, calling the fence a last-ditch attempt by the country club to kill the condo project. BH Wilshire is forging ahead with plans to build two towers of 14 to 16 stories containing 235 luxury condos and 16,400 square feet of ground-floor retail and restaurant space on the 8-acre former Robinsons-May site. (See sidebar.)

The dispute is set to land before a Los Angeles City Council committee next month – unless the two sides can hammer out an agreement first.

The proposed fence would range in height from 150 feet to 166 feet, depending on ground topography. (The fence would be level on top, so it would be shorter where the ground slopes higher.) It would be composed of a partly transparent black-screen mesh, with supporting poles; one drawing shown early on at a public meeting had the poles adorned on top with faux palm fronds.

Most golf ball containment fences range between 30 and 50 feet high; one of the tallest in the region is a 70-foot-high mesh fence, supported by 100-foot poles, at the Westlake Village Golf Course next to the 101 freeway.

The Los Angeles Country Club fence would be significantly taller than the seven-story Beverly Hilton Hotel next door and would match the height of the nearby Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the tallest commercial structure in Beverly Hills. It would be almost as tall as Century City’s first skyscraper, the 180-foot, 13-story Gateway West office tower just down Santa Monica Boulevard from the golf course. Another comparison: It would be taller than Hollywood’s Capitol Records building, not including the spire at the top.

Towering shots

At the center of the spat is a simple question: Is a 160-foot-high fence really necessary to keep those errant golf balls from hitting neighboring condos?

The answer, according to the country club, is yes. It has trotted out studies saying that when golfers hit their drive shots, balls can reach heights exceeding 200 feet. And to show that it’s not just the Tiger Woods of the world that drive golf balls so high, during a recent visit by Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz, whose district includes the golf course, country club executives brought out a radar device to track hit balls. Several routine drives shots hit 180 to 200 feet; even one of Koretz’s staff members managed to hit a height of 160 feet on one of his shots.

Because the 16th fairway is close to the west-facing portion of the planned condo project, the concern is what liability could be incurred when balls slice toward the residential building. If a ball hits a condo resident or visitor, or causes significant property damage, it could result in a costly lawsuit.

“If that ball I hit had sliced just 40 or 50 feet to the right, it would have hit the location where the condos are to be built,” said Shawn Bayliss, planning deputy for Koretz.

But the attorney representing the condo developer said liability concerns are overblown, that only rarely are golf balls hit so high. He said the city of L.A. zoning administrator got it wrong in granting a variance to allow construction of the fence.

“The zoning administrator said that if there’s a chance of a single ball impacting the property, then the 166-foot height is justified,” said Timothy McOsker, partner with the law firm of Glaser Weil in nearby Century City, who took over the case last year. “We think that’s an inaccurate interpretation of law. Otherwise, every course in L.A. would have fences that high.”

Blocked views?

In his appeal filed in December, McOsker said the fence would block views and cast shadows on the condo towers, “thereby inhibiting BH Wilshire’s ability to sell condominiums.” Furthermore, “the real motivation behind the requested variance is Los Angeles Country Club’s opposition to the two mixed-use luxury condominium buildings that were lawfully permitted by the city of Beverly Hills. … Rather than accept this decision, LACC has instead sought to misuse the Los Angeles variance process to kill BH Wilshire’s redevelopment project.”

Mark Armbruster, the attorney for the country club, said the fence won’t be an eyesore.

“It won’t be a fence like you see at other golf clubs,” said Armbruster, a partner at Armbruster Goldsmith & Delvac in Brentwood. “The public won’t see it at all and for the condominium owners that can see the fence, it will be a transparent screen. It will also be lower than the proposed mixed-use condo towers.”

Armbruster said that because he’s in talks with McOsker and other representatives of BH Wilshire, an entity set up by Hong Kong investment group Joint Treasure International, he did not wish to comment further on the arguments raised in the appeal.

“The new owners of that property are responsive and willing to work with us to work out a mutual resolution to this,” he said.

One possible compromise could involve a partial or total release of liability for the country club in exchange for a significantly lower fence.

Both sides indicated that reconfiguring either the golf course or the placement of the condo towers is not likely, since either move would entail considerable expense and government approvals.

The Los Angeles City Council’s planning and land-use management committee is set to consider the fence at a meeting April 8.

“We hope an agreement can be reached before that meeting,” said Paul Neuman, spokesman for Koretz. “We’ve encouraged both sides to talk and they seem to be doing just that.”

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