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Publication Date: Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Judge reopens Briones house lawsuit Judge reopens Briones house lawsuit (November 05, 2003)

Heritage foundation disappointed by change in heart

by Bill D'Agostino

In an unusual legal twist, the same judge who ruled in February that a historic Palo Alto home should be repaired will review his earlier decision.

Judge John Herlihy reportedly told a lawyer involved that he had never before in his career reopened a case that he had already ruled on.

On Feb. 20, 2003, Herlihy ordered the owners of the historic Juana Briones to repair and maintain it.

Specifically, owners Jaim Nulman and Avelyn Welczer were told to fix earthquake damage caused by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, and remove illegal alterations made by the previous owner.

At the time, some thought the ruling brought an end to a complicated legal wrangle. But Kent Mitchell, attorney for the home's current owners, made a motion to ask the judge to reopen the case. The judge agreed that there were enough doubts regarding the statue of limitations to merit a new hearing. New arguments will be heard on Dec. 15.

"Whatever happened before is now gone," Mitchell said.

The current owners purchased the property in 1997. When the city denied them a demolition permit in October 1998, the couple sued, saying the damage was irreparable. The city counter-sued, claiming the couple was violating a 1988 contract by not keeping the home up to code.

Under the contract -- originally signed by the city and then-owner Dr. Dan Meub -- the home is to be maintained in its historical condition in exchange for a tax break. It was Meub, ironically, who supposedly added the wing's illegal alterations that the city is trying to get the present owners to fix.

Leaders of the Juana Briones Heritage Foundation, hoping to transform the home into a California history learning center, were disappointed by the judge's unusual change of heart.

Especially in the winter, the house is suffering destruction by neglect, said former Mayor Gail Wooley, the president of the foundation. "It really is open to the elements and the animals."

The two issues that the judge has asked attorneys to focus on in December are the statute of limitations of the contract between the city and the owners, and the ability to enforce that contract. Mitchell is arguing that the statute of limitations of the contract between the owners and the city has ended, and that in any case, the contract is unenforceable.

The current owners purchased the property in 1997. When the city denied them a demolition permit in October 1998, the couple sued, saying the damage was irreparable. The city counter-sued, claiming the couple was violating a 1988 contract by not keeping the home up to code.

"It's a very complicated case," Mitchell said. "That's the one thing that all parties and the judge totally agree on -- it's a mind twister on all issues."

Whatever the legal system ultimately decides, the owners will still be able to legally tear down the historic building in October 2007, when the 1988 contract expires.

"They're running out the clock -- or trying to," said Assistant City Attorney Bill Mayfield, who is arguing the case for the city.

The house is part of the 4500-acre Rancho La Purissima Concepcion owned by early 19th century pioneer Juana Briones. Local historians believe the home was her summer residence or retirement home.

But state historians have questioned, in recent years, whether she actually ever lived there and believe that the second owner likely tore down most of the original 1850-era building.

E-mail Bill D'Agostino at bdagostino@paweekly.com


 

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