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By Jesse “Jay” Sowell, Dana Point
I had no idea when I filed a public records request with the city of Dana Point to uncover the true costs behind Council’s ill-fated decision to sue the California Coastal Commission and the Surfrider Foundation that I was opening up a can of worms. What we know so far is that the city has spent over $1 million on legal fees over the course of four lawsuits, essentially on behalf of Headlands, LLC, the developer of the luxury home development, Strand at Headlands. That figure may be low because the Council just added $520,000 in legal fees and litigation expenses to the city budget on March 15. Part of those expenses, $160,000 is budgeted to sue Headlands LLC for apparently refusing to reimburse the city for a significant portion of these legal expenses. The city fronted taxpayer funds, and now those funds may not be reimbursed. I have submitted further records’ requests to get a look at the reimbursement agreement, but so far, I haven’t been given access to those documents.
City Attorney Patrick Munoz, from Rutan and Tucker of Newport Beach, has now used city staff resources, time, energy and significant taxpayer dollars, to defend a wealthy developer. Part of the Superior Court’s judgment referred to the council’s urgency ordinance—an attempt, with police and council cooperation, to insist that the luxury area was so dangerous that gates were absolutely essential. The judge found this ordinance egregious and referred to it as “a pretext for avoiding coastal program obligations.”
This week we learned the city has finally settled the six-year series of lawsuits and will be paying $300,000 of taxpayer funds in mitigation damages, a penalty for blocking public access to Strands beach. After these fines are paid, the city (and this means taxpayers) will likely still be on the hook for the prevailing parties’ legal fees, which could be in the high six figures, judging from what the losing side has paid. In addition, we can expect more bills, per agreed settlement terms, including two new trails, bike racks, benches, signage, gate modifications and a mobile application program to inform beach goers of access hours. A further requirement is that the infamous urgency ordinance be canceled.
So far, the city and tax payers have been punished for a lengthy law suit where the judge stated the city acted “arbitrarily and capriciously.” What accountability can be expected from the city manager, city attorney (both of whom have been in these influential positions for more than a decade), and the City Council members who presided over this travesty since 2010?
This is the same city government that is now bringing us Measure I—their own ballot measure designed to confuse voters and interfere with Measure H, duly balloted after 4,200 residents signed the 2015 Town Center Initiative. The same folks who insisted on litigating to get their way on the Strandsgate controversy now think it’s OK to bully their way into the voting process, presenting a competing initiative to put ordinary citizens in their place. Please tell them you reject this scheme by voting “yes” on citizens’ initiative H and “no” on council initiative I.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A public records request by the DP Times in March found documentation showing the total Strand gates related legal fees billed to the city by Rutan and Tucker at just over $947,100. A separate records request, on April 5, found documentation of bills from the city to Headlands Reserve LLC for reimbursement of legal fees at approximately $949,100. The total amount reimbursed to the city by Headlands Reserve (as of April 5) was $635,350, leaving an unpaid balance of about $313,750.