Landowners claim a win in TRPA suit
While no one can claim total victory, a large group of Lake Tahoe landowners has achieved a significant win in its case against the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, according to attorney Larry Hoffman.
TRPA and the Tahoe Sierra Preservation Council received District Judge Edward Reed’s ruling Tuesday on a 14-year-old lawsuit which Hoffman, who represents the preservation council, has previously described as “probably the biggest land-use case in the country right now.”
Filed in 1984, the lawsuit centers on TRPA’s alleged “taking” of property in the 1980s. The case finally went to trial in December 1998, and Reed’s ruling says that TRPA is liable for some of the alleged taking of property. The 72-page decision does not rule entirely in either side’s favor, and one or both sides may appeal parts of the decision, but Hoffman said he was pleased with the ruling.
“It’s a very significant win for the property owners. It’s the first time property owners have had a trial judge rule in their favor (against TRPA),” Hoffman said. “I would sort of describe it as we’re on second base trying to get home. It wasn’t a total home run, but a double isn’t so bad at this stage.”
TRPA officials said Reed’s ruling was split – some parts supporting TRPA, some parts supporting the property owners.
“This decision is another in a long line of decisions in this case,” said John Marshall, legal counsel for TRPA. “This is just another step in what will probably be a long battle.”
The lawsuit has more than 400 plaintiffs and was filed after TRPA issued a series of moratoriums in the 1980s, which stopped property owners from developing in certain environmentally sensitive areas. By law, TSPC argues, TRPA should have compensated property owners for that.
Marshall said that Reed’s ruling recognizes the importance of Lake Tahoe’s clarity and that development in Stream Environment Zones in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s largely hurt the lake’s quality.
The ruling also indicated TRPA’s actions in the 1980s were “essentially the best and only fix to the problem,” Marshall said.
“That for us is an affirmation of TRPA and its mission and chosen direction,” he said. “It validates what we’re doing.”
However, Reed ruled that, at least for a portion of the time the moratoriums were in place, TRPA is liable for compensation.
“We find that kind of incongruous,” Marshall said. “But that’s what he found.”
The trial was set to determine if TRPA was liable and a later trial is supposed to determine the amount of damages. The original lawsuit claimed more than $30 million in damages.
The next step in the case, both sides agree, is for them to carefully study the ruling to determine how to proceed.
“The next step is to digest what he has said,” Marshall said. “It’s going to take a lot of analysis before we proceed.”
In the 14-year history of the lawsuit, it has gone through a series of court hearings, appeals and mediation sessions, including three trips to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, which wouldn’t take the case and sent it back to district court. About 35 of the plaintiffs have died during the course of the suit’s history.
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