Un-Welcome to Mr. Roberts' Neighborhood

The Chans were set to build a nice, simple home on their own property. Then Chronicle honcho Jerry Roberts and his relentless wife moved next door. Suddenly, everything became very complicated and very nasty.

Five years ago, Sandra and Anthony Chan decided to do something nice for their eldest son, Gary. He would soon graduate with an economics degree from the University of California at Davis. His parents expected him to marry and have children of his own one day.

So they decided to build Gary a house next to their family residence on 10th Avenue, in the hills above the Inner Sunset.

"We have a very close family," Sandra Chan says of her children. "They love my cooking. They love me for the way I raised them up. They want to live next door. They say they'd like me to ring the doorbell, anytime. They'd like me to raise their kids."

You couldn't blame the Chan kids for being devoted to their parents. Consider the parental track record: The three Chan children -- Gary, 24; Michael, 21; and Lisa, 16 -- all have excelled, academically and otherwise. All made their way into, and then thrived at, Lowell High School, the city's only secondary school with an academics-based admissions policy (and even though Asian students were required to score higher to gain admission than other Lowell applicants). The Chan kids also shone on the baseball diamond and the tennis court; they sped to victory in track and field. Their athletic trophies crowd the mantel above the Chan fireplace. All three children also play the family's grand piano; Michael is actually studying the instrument in college.

The Chans thought they had everything in place so their first-born son could live near them after he finished college.

In July 1994, the San Francisco Planning Commission gave the Chans the principal approval they needed to build Gary a home. The commission granted the Chans' application to divide their land, legally speaking. Instead of one large lot containing one house, it now was two smaller lots, one containing the old Chan homestead, and the other containing the site for Gary's new home.

Gaining approval for such a subdivision of residential property is no simple matter in San Francisco, the promised land of land-planners and neighborhood activists. In this particular case, the Chans needed to obtain a waiver from standard residential zoning rules -- that is, a conditional use permit -- because the newly created lot was believed to be slightly smaller than would ordinarily be allowed in this neighborhood. (Actually, the new lot was wrongly surveyed and did not need the waiver; but the bad survey was discovered only recently.)

So notices were sent. Hearings were held. And the Planning Commission gave the Chans their conditional use permit and the subdivision of their lot. In 1995, an architect, Gary Gee, designed the three-bedroom house the Chans wanted to build just to the south of their home at 2150 10th Ave.

And on April 9, 1996, exactly one year ago, the city Department of Building Inspection blessed the architect's drawings, granting the Chans a "site permit" for Gary's new home.

Everything seemed to be proceeding according to plan.
But the Chans did not yet realize that they had gotten new next-door neighbors: Jerry Roberts, then the city editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, and his wife, a business executive named Linda Kiefer.

For Sandra and Anthony Chan, life was about to get very complicated, very, very unpleasant, and very, very, very expensive.

Being a member of the Forest Hill Association means something. For one thing, it means you own a house in Forest Hill, the hillside and hilltop neighborhood of the well-to-do, well-connected, and, ostensibly, the well-mannered of San Francisco. Forest Hill counts city commissioners and the chief of police among its residents. And Forest Hill offers its denizens side benefits, including the Forest Hill clubhouse, a setting appropriate to the most upscale of social gatherings. The clubhouse was a creation of Bernard Maybeck, the California architect who designed San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts, but who is best remembered for making warm, intimate dwellings settings out of redwood and shingle. Forest Hill residents can use their Maybeck-designed clubhouse for up to eight hours, if they pay $1,200 in rent.

Jerry Roberts and Linda Kiefer paid a steep price for their Forest Hill dream house, a big gray shingled beauty that lords over the hill where 10th and Mendosa avenues meet. They bought the home in December 1995, using profits from the sale of a Potrero Hill house they'd owned for 21 years and $644,000 they borrowed from the Bank of America.

The dream cost a total of $920,000.
Once they owned the house, Roberts and Kiefer became members of the Forest Hill Association. Although they live next door to the Roberts-Kiefer duo, Sandra and Anthony Chan are not in the association, and, unless they move, never will be. The property line between the Chan and Roberts lots, it so happens, is the northwest boundary of Forest Hill.

Roberts and Kiefer worked damn hard to get to Forest Hill. Kiefer runs sales and marketing operations for a family lubricants-supply business her grandfather started on the East Coast, and also directs an employee benefits consulting firm she founded while she was home after the birth of their third daughter.

Jerry worked so hard it nearly killed him.
He joined the Chronicle as a reporter in 1976. The Chron assigned Roberts to cover City Hall. A series of promotions landed him in the paper's state capital bureau in Sacramento in 1978. He was back in San Francisco, as editor of governmental-affairs coverage, in 1982, then became political editor in 1987. At the Republican presidential convention of 1992 -- the night Vice President Dan Quayle's wife, Marilyn, addressed the delegates -- Roberts fell seriously ill. A blood clot had formed in his leg. He was hospitalized upon his return to San Francisco.

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