Neighbors Locking Horns In Highlands -- Mansion's Renovation Over 3 Years Spurs Suit
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
As if the uproar about cost overruns at Safeco Field weren't enough to distract Mariners co-owner Chris Larson, he's found himself defending another major building project - the renovation of his 32-room mansion in The Highlands.
One of his neighbors has sued, claiming the ongoing three-year construction project in the guarded and gated 380-acre community has disrupted the couple's lifestyle, devalued their own multimillion-dollar house and rattled their windows and nerves.
"It's indescribable - the dust, the noise," complained Becky Allen, whose home abuts Larson's 15-acre estate atop a bluff overlooking Puget Sound. "It's intolerable. We haven't been able to use our pool for two years."
The concerns by Allen and her husband, Richard Allen, have escalated from a series of neighborly pleas to pointed letters and, now, to legal warfare involving two of the most prestigious law firms in Seattle.
Richard Allen, himself a lawyer, is a senior partner in the firm of Lane Powell Spears Lubersky, which has filed the lawsuit on his behalf. Larson is represented by Preston Gates & Ellis.
Though in need of work, Larson's three-story, 31,000-square-foot mansion, the old McCone-Pigott estate, is perhaps the signature estate in The Highlands, Seattle's old-money enclave where families with names like Boeing, Wright and McCaw have laid their roots.
His vision for it is spectacular. Along with renovating the mansion itself, with its grand ballroom and 10 fireplaces, he and his wife, Julia Calhoun, have undertaken a massive landscaping project that includes a stream complete with Japanese pond and turtle island, a rose garden, sports courts and a croquet lawn alongside a children's playhouse.
They have added a 24-car underground garage at the end of a half-mile-long drive - a project that alone required the excavation of 10,000 cubic yards of dirt. Plans on file with the city of Shoreline indicate the couple intend to plant hundreds of trees and bushes to replace those torn out during the reconstruction.
A 1997 letter from contractor Krekow Jenning Inc. to the city stated that it should expect 50 to 60 dump-truck trips a day out of The Highlands for 10 days for the garage project alone.
The Allens claim in their Superior Court lawsuit - filed in March - that the project is a nuisance of epic proportions.
"Larson and Calhoun's activities mandate expulsion or, at a minimum, termination of their rights of membership in The Highlands," the lawsuit demands. At the very least, they want a court order stopping construction until the problems they say it poses can be ameliorated. Larson and Calhoun have not yet moved into the mansion.
"He's just having all this stuff go on. He doesn't even live here," Becky Allen said. "He's just going to move in and enjoy all the peace and quiet of The Highlands."
The Allens are also seeking damages for health problems they say have been brought on by the dirt, dust and noise.
Claims of health problems
Richard Allen said he has been diagnosed with adult-onset asthma and Becky Allen claims she has suffered from breathing problems and chronic sinusitus.
"Both plaintiffs have suffered mental distress from the noise, traffic and pollution which has made it impossible for the Allens to reside in their home," the suit claims.
"This is a project beyond all tolerable scale," Richard Allen said. "At the moment, it is a scar. That's what we look out on every day."
Larson, through his attorney, says the Allens' claims are baseless. He has obtained all the necessary building permits and has permission from The Highlands Association, which oversees the community's strict bylaws.
"Mr. Larson believes it is very unfortunate that the Allens have chosen to file a lawsuit over this matter," said lawyer Thomas Wolfendale. "The matter is now in litigation, and it is not our intention to try to resolve this issue in the press."
Since early 1997, bulldozers, cranes, backhoes, pile drivers and dump trucks have rumbled through the stately gates of The Highlands.
Critics cry outrage
Wolfendale, Larson's attorney, says the project will be a "beautiful renovation of the former Pigott estate and will remain commensurate with the character of this quite beautiful and secure neighborhood."
The cost of the project is not publicly known, but Becky Allen says its extravagance is an outrage, coming at a time when Larson and the other M's owners are asking King County taxpayers to pick up $60 million in cost overruns at the $517 million Safeco Field.
"It was the last straw for me," she said.
That, and the fact that Larson apparently refused to pay them $9,000 a month so they could live elsewhere during the construction.
Richard Allen said Larson offered to buy their home, at one point, but refused to pay the asked price. According to letters provided by Becky Allen, that amount was 50 percent above its appraised value of $2.6 million.
That sum included compensation for health problems they blame on the project.
Larson, 40, is a Microsoft executive who in 1992 invested $30 million to become one of the Mariners' major owners. That was roughly the same time he purchased the mansion, which was built in 1913 and was in need of work.
The home, called Norcliffe, was built by lumber magnate C.D. Stimson. It is the former home of Theiline and Paul Pigott, founder of Pacific Car and Foundry, now called Paccar.
After Paul Pigott's death, Theiline Pigott married former CIA director John McCone. She died in 1990 and he died the following year.
Asking price for the home and its surrounding 9.5 acres was $6.5 million, according to news accounts at the time. Larson also owns an adjoining lot of roughly 6 acres.
In 1994, Larson used the home to host a wedding reception for Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Shortly thereafter, Larson and Calhoun began preliminary work on the Norcliffe renovation project, which is so extensive that Shoreline planning officials simply refer to it as the "North Seattle Residence," or "NSR," without need of further explanation.
Indeed, the massive 4-foot rolls of architects' drawings fill a grocery cart at City Hall, and its building permits and construction reports are crammed into 11 phonebook-thick files.
Construction began in January 1997 and is expected to continue through November 2000, according to documents in the court file. Final inspections are tentatively set for April 2001.
Dispute goes to court
Just northeast of Larson's estate - which itself will be fully fenced and gated - live the Allens.
In letters to Larson and later in the lawsuit, they say the project has been an unbearable inconvenience and nuisance. Moreover, they claim it is in violation of covenants imposed by The Highlands on its residents.
Nat Penrose, president of The Highlands Association, would say only that Larson and Calhoun presented their renovation proposal to the association's building and sites committee and that construction was allowed to proceed. He declined further comment.
"It's a personal and private matter and I'm not going to air anything publicly," he said.
Becky Allen says the association rubber-stamped the project, which the lawsuit claims is in violation of a charter prohibiting neighbors from being a nuisance to one another.
"The construction activity has caused noise, excessive traffic, blockage of streets, airborne particles of dirt and dust, excessive trash, mud and other offensive items which have made it impossible for the Allens to enjoy the use of their property and residence," says their lawsuit.
"It's like being down on Sixth and Pike when they were doing the Nordstrom project," Becky Allen said.
Mike Carter's phone-message number is 206-464-3706. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
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