TRPA settles Suitum suit
One settlement down; another settlement soon may go.
The Governing Board of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency next week will consider a proposal for settling a lawsuit the regulatory board has faced since 1991. Legal counsel for the parties of Suitum vs. TRPA have reached a tentative settlement.
Larry Hoffman, co-counsel for Bernadine Suitum, said the action would mark a milestone.
“To my knowledge, this is the first time TRPA has been required to resolve a lawsuit by purchasing a piece of property and pay an individual property owner,” Hoffman said. “That’s a first. It’s a very substantial victory.”
Suitum and her late husband purchased a vacant lot in Incline Village in 1972 for $5,000. They did not build on the lot for 15 years. Then in 1989, Suitum applied for and received a Washoe County residential allocation. However, TRPA considered her lot 100 percent stream environment zone and would not allow it to be built upon.
She appealed the decision to TRPA’s governing board; it rejected her appeal.
She sued TRPA in 1991.
The suit “claims the application of certain TRPA regulations to her Lake Tahoe property effected a regulatory taking in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
According to the Fifth Amendment, the plaintiffs claim, TRPA must reimburse Suitum for the taken property.
U.S. District Court Judge Edward Reed in 1994 agreed to dismiss the case. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision in 1996. However, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 reversed it. Out of probably more than 5,000 requests, the Suitum case was one of only 80 cases heard that year.
“(Suitum vs. TRPA) is also one of the very few cases where TRPA has been dragged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the court decided against them,” Hoffman said.
The case was sent back to Reed for trial. TRPA again tried to have it dismissed, but the agency’s efforts failed.
The trial was scheduled to begin this week. However, the parties have been working for months on an acceptable settlement. They have reached a tentative agreement.
In the terms of the proposed settlement, no party will concede liability, Suitum will dismiss her lawsuit and turn her property over to the Nevada Division of State Lands, and TRPA will pay her $515,000.
A business called the Pacific Legal Foundation helped represent Suitum in the Supreme Court, and TRPA in February approved an $85,000 settlement with that agency.
If the governing board approves the settlement on April 28, the total cost to the agency will be $600,000.
Hoffman said that Suitum, who is now in her 80s, is satisfied with the agreement.
“Mrs. Suitum has signed the settlement agreement,” Hoffman said. “She is pleased this has come to conclusion. She is obviously disappointed she will not be able to build her dream home on that lot.”
John Marshall, legal counsel for TRPA, said it was up to the board to decide if this was an acceptable resolution for the agency.
This agreement comes less than a month after officials agreed to dismiss a lawsuit related to TRPA’s upcoming ban on certain types of motorized watercraft. The judge’s official agreement to dismiss that suit came last week.
TRPA currently faces one other lawsuit surrounding virtually identical issues as the Suitum Case: the alleged taking of property. It is 15 years old, has more than 400 plaintiffs and has twice been rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case of the Tahoe Sierra Preservation Council vs. TRPA went to trial in December 1998. Reed ruled on that case earlier this year, siding partially with both sides. Each party is in the process of filing cross appeals.
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