Marin salmon defenders awarded $148K for creek litigation
Author: Gary Klien
Publication: Marin Independent Journal
A Marin judge ordered the county and two property owners to pay nearly $148,000 in legal fees in a battle over a home construction plan in Woodacre.
The money covers costs incurred by lawyers for the winning party, the nonprofit Turtle Island Restoration Network, parent organization of the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network.
Judge Paul Haakenson ruled in the nonprofit’s favor in the lawsuit last fall, setting off a second round of litigation over the fees. He issued his decision on the fees on April 6.
The lawsuit involved a plan to build a 1,900-square-foot house and 460-square-foot garage at 192 Redwood Drive. The property is next to Woodacre Creek, a tributary of San Geronimo Creek.
The environmentalists, whose fish project is familiarly known as SPAWN, challenged the county’s approval of the project. The nonprofit said state law required the county to order an environmental impact report, or EIR.
“Petitioner, without a personal interest in the property or the project, sought to assure that the ecosystem of the adjacent, downslope Woodacre Creek and its salmon population received careful environmental consideration before approval of the project,” Haakenson wrote.
In October, Haakenson ruled in favor of the salmon advocacy and said an EIR must be performed for the project to go forward. The winning plaintiffs then sought to recover their legal costs from the county and the property owners, James Murray and Matthew Murray.
The Murrays’ lawyers argued that the county should bear the costs of the litigation. They attributed the environmental problem to the county’s allegedly inadequate repair of prior landslide damage on Redwood Drive.
Haakenson rejected the argument, saying it “confuses the issue.”
“Although the court order in this action was directed at the county, the Murrays are the real party in interest,” Haakenson wrote. “This was their project.”
The judge reviewed the proposed billing of the plaintiff’s legal team and calculated that the county and the Murrays jointly owe $147,597.33 to cover the nonprofit’s litigation costs. He reduced the proposed fees for two lawyers by 20 percent and knocked $35,000 off the $50,000 bill for the fee motion, calling the charge “grossly and profoundly excessive.”
Neil Sorensen, attorney for James Murray, said his client is “disappointed in the ruling.”
“He believes the court should have denied the motion for fees or if fees were to be assessed they should have been assessed against the county and not him,” he said. “The county completely controlled the process and made all the decisions regarding environmental review. Also, the court ruled that the major reason an EIR was required was due to the county failing to properly repair Redwood Drive in front of the Murray property.”
Sorensen added, “It is interesting that the county is buying the local golf course for $8 million partly at the request of SPAWN, yet SPAWN still goes after the county for attorneys fees in litigation such as this. You would think the county could have induced SPAWN to waive fees here in exchange for the golf course deal.”
Marin County Counsel Brian Washington said, “We are analyzing the decision and evaluating our options.”
Steve Volker, the lawyer for the environmentalists, said his public-interest firm devoted substantial time to the litigation without being paid up front.
“The county and the developers attacked our fee request from every conceivable angle, and even argued that we should recover no fee,” he said. “Ironically, while the county and the developers fought our lawsuit as hard as they could — forcing us to spend even more time to win the case — after we won the lawsuit they flip-flopped and claimed we could have won it with less time and effort.
“Judge Haakenson correctly rejected their arguments that we were not entitled to a reasonable fee, and awarded us a substantial fee over their loud opposition.”
Todd Steiner, executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network, said the litigation has broad implications for the area.
“The judge’s decision essentially ends all new development in the (San Geronimo) Valley until the county completes the proper environmental review we have been asking for for over a decade,” he said. “A science-based, common sense stream protection ordinance could put an end to all this litigation that the county always loses and thus is burdened with the attorney fees.”
No EIR has been performed for the Woodacre project.
“The Board of Supervisors rescinded the county’s approval in response to the court’s decision, so there is no project,” said Tom Lai, assistant director of the county Community Development Agency.
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