Thursday, November 13, 2008
Court Upholds Fee Award in Fight to Save Historic Mansion
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A preservation group is entitled to attorney fees for successfully challenging a San Mateo County town’s decision allowing Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs to demolish an historic 17,000-foot mansion to build a smaller residence, the First District Court of Appeal held yesterday.
Ruling that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the litigation conferred a significant benefit on the general public, or that the burden of private enforcement was disproportionate to the group’s personal interest in the litigation, Div. Three in an unpublished opinion upheld a $403,548 fee award against Jobs and the Town of Woodside.
Local preservation group Uphold Our Heritage sought the award after the Court of Appeal ruled in 2007 that the town violated historic preservation laws when it authorized Jobs to demolish the Jackling House, which was built for copper magnate Daniel Jackling in the 1920s and designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style by architect George Washington Smith.
Jobs—who bought the house in 1984, lived in it for about 10 years, and then rented it out until 2000, the last time it was lived in—sought permission to demolish the house in 2001, citing its deteriorating state.
When the town’s consultant advised that the house was a “historical resource” that could not be demolished without California Environmental Quality Act review, the town prepared an environmental impact report identifying several alternatives to demolition, including rehabilitation at that or another location.
However, despite a conclusion by planning staff that demolition would be inconsistent with the town’s goals of preserving its “rural character and natural beauty” and encouraging maintenance and rehabilitation of existing structures, the town’s Planning Commission found that the alternatives identified in the EIR were not feasible, and concluded that the town’s interest in conserving open space outweighed the historic impacts.
The commission approved the demolition plan and the City Council upheld the decision, but Uphold our Heritage, backed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the California Preservation League, sought a writ of mandate challenging the town’s action.
San Mateo Superior Court Judge Marie S. Weiner granted the writ, opining that the town’s decision was unsupported by substantial evidence because there was no proof that rehabilitation costs would exceed those of tearing down the house and building a new residence, and Justice Joanne Parrilli, since retired, wrote for the Court of Appeal in agreement.
On remand, Weiner granted Uphold our Heritage’s motion for attorney fees under the private attorney general doctrine set forth in Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 1021.5, finding that the litigation resulted in the enforcement of an important public right by stopping the demolition of the historic residence, and that it conferred a significant benefit on the general public by adding “to the jurisprudence of California on legal issues of public interest.”
The town again appealed, but Justice Stuart R. Pollak rejected its contention that the “temporary ‘preservation’ of one private, single-family home, inaccessible to the general public and subject to inevitable deterioration and potential collapse” did not confer a significant benefit on the general public or a large class of persons.
“[W]hile Jobs may choose to let the house deteriorate, Heritage has prevented the Town from sanctioning the demolition of the property, thus preserving the historic site for the immediate future. The fact that the public does not presently have access to the property does not necessarily eliminate the existence of a public benefit.
“The future of the historic home is still undecided, but there are several potential scenarios under which the historic value of the property will be permanently preserved. Demolition of the home would have eliminated these possibilities and ensured that the public would have forever lost its historic value.”
Pollak further opined that the cost of pursuing the litigation had imposed a burden on the group that was out of proportion to its individual stake in the matter, and added that the amount of the fee award was reasonable given Uphold Our Heritage’s contingent fee agreement with its attorneys.
“[V]iewing this case from the outset, its outcome was far from certain and counsel took a substantial risk that they would not prevail and would be paid nothing for the major portion of their time and effort…,” he wrote. “The award is neither grossly excessive nor inconsistent with the purposes of the private attorney general doctrine.”
Justices Peter J. Siggins and Martin J. Jenkins joined Pollak in his opinion.
The case is Uphold Our Heritage v. Town of Woodside (Jobs), A120749.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company