County pays out $1.75M to settle suit over permit delay
Herald Staff Writer
Article Last Updated: 10/11/2007 01:28:02 AM PDT

A 70-year Carmel Highlands woman who accused county planners of violating her civil rights by intentionally blocking plans for a coastal retaining wall to protect her cliffside home is getting $1.75 million to settle a federal suit.

Attorneys for the county and Valera Lyles said the 2005 suit in U.S. District Court was settled recently after mediation by retired Monterey County Superior Court Judge Harkjoon Paik.

“She is ecstatic. She feels like a total weight has been lifted,” said Gerald Barron, who represented Lyles in the case.

Barron said the settlement represents a victory for county residents and property owners because it should teach county officials that “they are there for the public, and they should always act as true public servants.”

The county didn’t admit to any wrongdoing in the settlement, and Deputy County Counsel Irv Grant said the decision was based on the potential costs of continued litigation. “There is no clear footprint we did anything wrong, as I see,” Grant said Wednesday.

Lyles’ suit accused a number of past and current county officials “” including former County Administrator Sally Reed, former planning director Scott Hennessy, former building chief Brian Washko and current planning officials Alana Knaster and Jeff Main “” of repeatedly frustrating her application for an emergency permit to shore up her Spindrift Road home, which is perched above Wildcat Cove. The ground there has eroded in heavy storm years. She first
applied for the permit in 2002, using a family friend as the project manager.

In her suit, Lyles claimed she was singled out for disparate treatment because county officials demanded excessive engineering, disparaged her project manager and retaliated for complaints he made to the county grand jury about the planning process.

Barron said he hopes the case impresses county officials with the duty “to treat people with courtesy and respect, and with being open to fair questions and even challenges from residents without being hardheaded.”

In June 2006, the federal judge on the case ordered the county to issue the retaining wall permit and construction began. The wall still isn’t finished, but the settlement prevents the county from stopping work or requiring any further plan reviews.

“They are really under the jurisdiction of the federal court and should anything go wrong, we are really out the picture,” Grant said.

Barron said it likely will be next spring before the wall is completed.

In a key pretrial ruling last January, U.S. District Court Judge James Ware rejected the county’s bid to have the suit dismissed on the grounds that Lyles wasn’t treated any differently than any other applicant for a county planning permit.

Ware said Lyles had presented evidence of violations of her due process and equal protection rights. The judge noted that both Hennessy and Washko, in depositions taken by Barron, testified that the county’s demands for Lyles’ permit were unusually stiff.

Grant said the litigation would be a learning experience. “We learn from every claim,” he said. “I’m sure there will be some modifications based on this particular lawsuit.”

Lyles spent more than $500,000 trying to get the permits, Barron said, and also suffered emotional distress and other noneconomic damages. She likely could have received a bigger monetary award if the case had gone to trial, but that would have dragged on for several years, he said.

“With the agreement, the county essentially leaves her alone and lets her finish the retaining wall,” he said.

Grant said: “We resolved it. They came in at a higher number, and we came in at a lower number “” typical negotiations.”

Court documents show the county Board of Supervisors approved the settlement at its Aug. 28 meeting.