Briones house saved from demolition -- for now


The historic Juana Briones house won't be torn down on Saturday. Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Leslie Nichols Thursday ordered a "stay" on a demolition permit that had been issued by the City of Palo Alto.

The judge's ruling means that a lawsuit filed by the Friends of Juana Briones will be allowed to proceed. The group is arguing in its lawsuit that the city needs to conduct an environmental impact study before the demolition can proceed, citing the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The city is being sued because it wrote into its demolition-permit agreement with property owners Jaim Nulman and Avelyn Welczer that following CEQA would not be required.

CEQA requires that an evaluation for environmental or historical significance must be done prior to demolition of potentially important properties. If significance is found, an environmental impact report (EIR) would have to be conducted.

In failing to follow CEQA, the city has denied the public a right to comment and review on any findings, said Susan Brandt-Hawley, attorney for Friends of the Juana Briones House.

The original court case made no mention of CEQA, and an exemption was never decided by the court, she added.

"They threw it in one week after I sent them a letter in January telling them they had to follow CEQA," Brandt-Hawley said.

"If a city and a developer could privately decide that CEQA did not apply to their particular project, then the California environmental law would be meaningless. They can't agree that state law doesn't apply to them."

The city claimed it was exempt from CEQA because the court ruling in the original case left it with only the ability to grant a ministerial permit -- one which allows no possibilities other than granting the demolition permit.

When Nulman, Welczer and the city wrote conditions into the permit that allow preservationists and historians salvaging rights and a 60-day delay in demolition in which to remove artifacts and record historical elements of the property, they created a "discretionary" permit, according to Brandt-Hawley.

"In case law, any delay implies discretion," she said.

Kent Mitchell, attorney for Nulman and Welczer, was not available for comment.

The court order will be in effect until the lawsuit is resolved, Brandt-Hawley said.

"It's a very joyous moment. I've had connections with this house since 1985," said Briones historian Jeanne McDonnell, one of three plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The other two plaintiffs are Boyd DeLarios and Susan Kirk.

The Juana Briones house, located at 4155 Old Adobe Road, was built around 1845. Nulman and Welczer, its current owners, have been fighting a legal battle over the last several years to win approval to demolish the house to build a new home.

Juana Briones was part of the Californio population of Spanish, Mexican and Native-American descent. She was also a humanitarian, a healer and the daughter of members of the historic De Anza expedition into California in 1776, according to the Juana Briones Heritage Association.

She was born in Villa Branciforte, now Santa Cruz, lived in San Francisco's Presidio with her husband, battled smallpox in Marin and ran a successful hide business in what is now Palo Alto.

— Don Kazak and Sue Dremann


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