$100K increase in attorney’s fees OK’d by Nevada County Board of Supervisors in Penn Valley ridgeline case
Nevada County will spend another $100,000 to defend itself in a lawsuit involving a ridgeline property in Penn Valley, bringing the total in outside counsel fees in the long-running case to $275,000.
The county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to allow the increase in fees to attorney Michael Colantuono, who was hired by the county as defense counsel in the suit, filed in March 2013 by property owners Juliet Erickson and Peter Lockyer.
“Exactly how much money are you going to spend on this — and why?” resident Joey Jordan asked the supervisors in one of the public comments prior to the vote. “I’m sure we could find better ways to utilize the taxpayer dollars this county, under your direction, is wasting on lawsuits.
“It could be argued that addressing homelessness, mental health and substance abuse issues might be more to the interest of your constituents than the Trial Attorney Care Act you appear to be so intent on funding,” she said.
Supervisors offered a series of responses to Jordan’s and other public comments, ranging from, “There’s two sides to every story,” from Chair Ed Scofield to a mixed approach from Supervisor Richard Anderson.
“I’m troubled that the Lockyers are unable to use their property in a way similar to other property owners in Penn Valley,” Anderson said. “I wish both sides could come to an agreement.”
However, Anderson said he would vote for the fee increase because a legal decision against the county “would set a land-use precedent,” he said.
“The county must pursue the issue of what defines a taking (condemnation),” Anderson said. “Not only for this county, but for other counties statewide.”
Erickson, who was present for the hearing but who did not speak at public comment, said she was “disappointed” in the vote.
She added that some of the supervisors’ remarks — particularly those of supervisors Nate Beason and Dan Miller, who retorted hotly to comments by Jordan and Nevada City resident Steve Orlik — were “insulting,” she said.
“I felt like I was being chastized,” she said. “It was very chilling.”
Miller lashed out, in particular, against allegations of county planning staff missteps.
“Our staff has the highest level of professionalism,” he said. “It disturbs me to hear this.”
Beason called the allegations against county staff “most egregious fiction,” he said.
Jordan later defended her statements about county staff, supplying copies of emails she said reveal the allegedly questionable behind-the-scenes steps taken in the Lockyers’ permit case.
“Citizens should not be berated for pointing out the truth to an elected body,” Jordan said. “This isn’t grade school and I wasn’t on time out.”
Penn Valley resident Fran Cole, who unsuccessfully ran for county supervisor in 2014, was also in the audience. She said the case hasn’t yet gone to trial, and so supervisors were defending points that have not yet been argued in court.
“It’s inappropriate to use that tone and to speak in a derogatory manner to citizens who are just exercising their First Amendment rights (of free speech),” she said.
The Lockyers’ property, along Pleasant Valley Road overlooking Lake Wildwood, is adjacent to a Nevada Irrigation District site where Verizon last year erected a cellphone tower.
In two separate lawsuits dating back almost four years, the Lockyers tried unsuccessfully to block the cell tower construction.
The third time, in a complaint filed in March 2013 in Nevada County Superior Court, they focused not on the cell tower, but on the county’s response to their permit application to build an office/garage on their property.
The county said it would grant the permit, but only if the Lockyers agreed to a deed restriction imposing various tree preservation and maintenance requirements on a section of the Lockyers’ land.
The county claims the restrictions were needed to preserve a “visually important ridgeline”; the Lockyers claim the requirements were to shield the cell tower.
In May 2014, Nevada County Superior Court Judge Sean Dowling ruled in favor of the Lockyers’, deciding that the county was imposing an unconstitutional “taking” and that the deed restrictions should be reworked.
But late last year, Dowling changed his view of the proposed deed restrictions, ruling that they were actually a conservation easement and therefore illegal to place within a building permit management plan.
The county, in numerous motions filed by Colantuono, has disagreed.
A trial is set for 9 a.m. Aug. 25 to determine the issue of “taking.” A pre-trial hearing is set for 1 p.m. Friday.
To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4239.
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