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Plaintiff in Supreme Court case still wants a home at Tahoe

Patrick McCartney

On Wednesday, 82-year-old Bernadine Suitum will be in Washington, D.C. when attorneys argue the merits of her lawsuit against the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Much of the debate will revolve around the legal merits of the TRPA’s reliance on development rights as a form of compensation to landowners who are effectively barred from building on their property.

But in an interview last week, Suitum said she doesn’t care how much compensation she might have been offered for the Incline Village parcel she and her late husband John purchased in 1972.



She doesn’t want to sell the lot that was to be the site of the couple’s retirement home.

“We had both wanted to build up there,” said Suitum, who lives with a daughter in Orangevale, a suburb of Sacramento. “Now, I want to keep the dream alive. I don’t want to sell the lot.”



In 1972, the Suitums traded a house in North Highlands for the 18,000-square-foot lot in the Mills Creek subdivision in Incline Village. For a decade, the Suitums would stop by the wooded lot during their visits to Lake Tahoe, and talked about building an A-frame house where they would live when John Suitum retired from the U.S. Air Force.

But their plans were dashed when John Suitum died in 1982.

“I was very despondent after the death of my husband,” said Mrs. Suitum, the mother of three grown children. But by the time she applied to build on the lot in 1989, the TRPA had classified the property as part of a stream zone, a designation that prohibited any development.

Mrs. Suitum said she had been unaware of pending restrictions on building in the Tahoe Basin, but soon learned about the obstacles she faced.

“I was never a businessperson. I didn’t know anything about these restrictions for a year; it came to light only after we hired lawyers,” she said. “We got so many letters from Realtors. Someone offered me $7,000, but I said ‘No way.'”

The state of Nevada offered Suitum $35,000 for the lot in March, 1990, but one of Suitum’s attorneys found the timing of the bid to be suspect.

“The state of Nevada’s offer came in two days after Mrs. Suitum’s appeal went to the TRPA governing board,” said R.S. Radford of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has stepped in to assist Suitum attorney Patterson Cashill. “They were forcing her to choose: sell your land now or appeal; but you can’t do both.”

Once the board rejected her appeal, Suitum filed suit in federal court. The suit was dismissed, a decision that was later upheld by the Ninth District Court of Appeals. The court held that Suitum was required to pursue the sale of three types of transferable development rights assigned to the property by the TRPA before she could prove that she had been deprived of her land without compensation.

That’s the issue that attorneys for both sides will debate Wednesday before the nation’s high court. But it’s an issue that holds little interest to Mrs. Suitum.

“I loved the mountains and so did my husband,” Mrs. Suitum said. “If I win, I will build.”

The Supreme Court is expected to publish its decision in the summer.


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