War of the wall

Not the very high wall Michael Fenner-Solomon built on Rob Booth's boundary in the upmarket cape Town suburb of Constantia

Rob Booth is one of the lucky people who get to live in Constantia, Cape Town. But even in those green groves luck can run out, as Booth discovered when he crossed paths with Michael Fenner-Solomon, a hard-arsed Cape Town property developer who likes to refer to himself as “Mr Constantia”.

A few years back, Fenner-Solomon, who operates under the name Michael Grant Development, paid some R23.5m for a property that once housed the Swedish consulate, and which adjoins Rob Booth’s property. He managed to get permission to convert it (together with a much smaller adjoining property) into a “secure” estate, consisting of eight luxury homes (around R20m each), one of which is the original “manor house”, now extensively renovated. This highly desirable development goes under the name of Warbler’s Grove.

An estate agent with a particularly brown nose, Mike Greeff of Greeff Properties, enthused thus in The Property Magazine: “We have come to accept that Mike Fenner-Solomon is a market leader in top-of-the-range homes, but we can assure you that what he is developing here is likely to be seen as the best residential project he has ever produced.”

Although there seems to have been some kind of consultation between Fenner-Solomon and the owners of the surrounding properties, somehow those discussions didn’t include Booth, who, nonetheless, phlegmatically accepted the situation. Until the day, that is, that he arrived home to find 20 workmen lying about on his lawn having their tea – the 50-year old hedge separating his property from the new development had been removed, without consultation or notice. A furious Booth confronted the foreman, who placated him with a story that the hedge was to be replaced with a “classy” four-metre-high wall – and it would be plastered and painted on both sides.

Booth let the thing go for the moment, but did try to find out from the council exactly how high a wall has to be before a neighbour’s consent is required. No one could give him an answer. According to Booth the council’s main building man, Bill Carter, came around with building inspector Ray Windell, and Windell was adamant that the wall was being built according to plan (though Windell claimed that he’d lost his copy of the plan and was working from the developer’s copy).

Booth felt that the building of the wall posed a security threat (especially when he was away on holiday), and it made an almighty mess of his garden. A meeting between Booth and “Mr Constantia” was scheduled for sometime in March 2009, but Fenner-Solomon didn’t pitch. Instead there was an exchange of ill-tempered and not very literate emails and SMSs.

In one, Fenner-Solomon said he took “umbridge” (a nice name for a future development?) at neighbours who always put the blame on developers. In a later missive he called Booth “the biggest prick in Cape Town” (in different circumstances, Booth may have taken this as a compliment). Fenner-Solomon also threatened to blacken Booth’s name at Herschel (the expensive private girls’ school attended by both men’s daughters, who will, no doubt, turn out more genteel than their fathers), adding that “everyone in Cape Town knows you are a crook”. (Booth is a former car dealer, but it’s not clear if that was the basis for the claim.)

Then, in September last year, Fenner-Solomon suddenly got friendly, and asked for a meeting with Booth. It turned out that one of the houses in the development had been built too close to the boundary with Booth, and Fenner-Solomon needed his consent to a deviation from the building line. What particularly irked Booth was that it appeared to him that Fenner-Solomon had deliberately built before asking for consent. He was also irritated that Fenner-Solomon, who hadn’t plastered and painted Booth’s side of the wall, was now suggesting that this would happen if he consented to the building line deviation. Instead Booth objected.

On 19 October 2009, Booth wrote to the council’s director of planning to say that “notwithstanding that the dwelling has already been constructed and virtually completed (without approved plans) I wish to raise our objection to the approval of the plans ... the zoning scheme should not arbitrarily be ignored at the whim of property owners, and it is the obligation of the City of Cape Town to ensure that residents and land owners on adjoining properties are not affected by contraventions of the zoning scheme”.

On 16 November 2009, Booth’s lawyer wrote to Fenner-Solomon’s attorney to say “our investigations lead us to believe that the entire development ... has been undertaken without the necessary approved building plans”.

Noseweek discussed this matter with Bill Carter (Section Head: Building Development Manager) – which was an interesting experience. “Never heard of Warbler’s Grove” was his opener. “But Booth claims to have met you on site to discuss the four-metre wall,” noseweek replied.

“It’s a bit rich for Booth to be raising objections,” said Carter. “For years he’s been operating a business illegally from premises in Kenilworth.”

Carter claimed that although he isn’t involved with the matter, he thinks what happened is that Fenner-Solomon’s original plans were approved, but he then breached the building line and so required a further approval. “But Booth has withheld his consent,” we said.

 “It’s not for Booth to consent,” Carter replied, “he’s simply been asked for comment.” And what happens if the approval is not granted – would the building have to be demolished? “Yes,” said Carter, “although there would still be an appeal to province.”

Although Carter insisted that he couldn’t pre-empt the decision, he did say that he would be very surprised if approval wasn’t granted, for the simple reason that no case had been made out for a refusal. “But Booth’s saying you must apply the law; isn’t that a reason?” Carter sounded perplexed at the suggestion, insisting that there had to be some compelling reason to refuse a request for a deviation, for example a serious invasion of privacy. So does that mean that a developer, who obviously knows how the system works, can deliberately flout building lines, in the knowledge that consent for the deviation will be granted after the event?

“I’m afraid Mr Fenner-Solomon is falling back into his old ways,” said Carter. “In the past, we were able to impose surcharges on developers who did this – Fenner-Solomon paid about R90,000 on one development – but we no longer have that power.” Carter said building inspector Ray Windell, knew much more about the project, and promised to get Windell to call noseweek (he didn’t).

Booth is also highly irritated that Fenner-Solomon’s development has cost him a lot of money. When the rains came, the huge wall started collapsing, forcing Fenner-Solomon to reinforce it. The collapsing wall put pressure on another small wall on Booth’s property, but Fenner-Solomon refuses to compensate Booth (he did offer to buttress this wall, but Booth insisted on getting the work done by another builder).

Booth reckons that he’s out of pocket to the tune of some R200,000, what with the wall, the landscaping required to fix the mess made of the garden, and plumbers who had to come out on a number of occasions when the water supply was cut off as a result of the construction work.

Booth claims that because of the economic downturn Fenner-Solomon is now under serious pressure – most of the eight homes are unsold, and the American lady who bought the manor house moved out almost immediately, as she was very unhappy with the standard of work. He also says there are a lot of unhappy creditors out there, but few will say anything.

Fenner-Solomon told a rather different story. He told noseweek that Booth is a very difficult character who caused trouble from the start. He says that Booth’s “hedge” was a shitty little one-metre-high fence, and that he would’ve finished Booth’s side of the wall had Booth not been so difficult about a tree that had to be removed. Yes I did compliment Booth on his genitalia he said, but the Herschel comment was more along the lines of “It’s a pity we both have daughters at Herschel”.

As for the deviation, Fenner-Solomon claims it’s absolutely insignificant – a tiny triangle of one bedroom that goes 19cm over the building line – and that he has no doubt that approval will be granted. As for Booth’s claim that he’s spent R200,000, Fenner-Solomon said this was absolutely laughable and challenged Booth to provide invoices. The unhappy American lady, says Fenner-Solomon, is in fact a happy South African who’s not very visible because she travels a lot. And he’s sold five out of the eight units already. He warned noseweek that there would be “consequences” if anything unflattering about him appeared in these pages, and suggested we speak to Booth’s former colleagues at VW Claremont to find out what sort of person he was.

The conversation with one Pug Roux at VW Claremont went something like this: “Can you tell us something about Rob Booth?”

“How much time have you got? On second thoughts I’d rather not comment. I can confirm he was a shareholder here – but he no longer is and you can read into that what you like.”

Then, out of the blue, one Ashleigh Barnes phoned to say that she and her husband had bought at Warbler’s Grove, and they were very happy. Fenner-Solomon, she burbled, had “over-delivered”. But Booth was very difficult, and had caused all sorts grief when their removal truck tried to access their property.

Next, a trader, who requested anonymity phoned, to say that when he’d once threatened Fenner-Solomon with legal proceedings for money outstanding, Fenner-Solomon phoned him using all sorts of horrible language, and told him that he would throw R500,000 at legal fees if he were sued. As he reminded the poor fellow: “I am Mr Constantia.” 

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