Jaim Nulman and Avelyn Welczer got one step closer to building their dream home on the site of the historic Juana Briones house in the Palo Alto foothills, after the state's Sixth Appellate District Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday that the City of Palo Alto had no choice but to issue their demolition permit.
In a reversal of an earlier decision, the court ruled the city has no choice but to approve a demolition permit for the U-shaped house, which has stood on Old Adobe Road since the 1840s. The house was originally occupied by Juana Briones de Miranda, a businesswoman who separated from her husband in 1844 and became one of California's first female landowners.
The Wednesday decision followed more than a decade of litigation between Nulman and the group Friends of the Juana Briones House, which seeks to protect the dilapidated structure from demolition. The city initially denied Nulman's demolition permit but later approved it after appeals. The Friends group then challenged the approval.
The latest court ruling states that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) did not apply in this case because "approval of that permit was a ministerial act," according to the case summary.
What that means, Nulman's attorney Greg Klingsporn said, is because the owners met the city's building-code requirements and paid the fees, the city had no choice but to issue a demolition permit. Issuing the permit was not a discretionary act on the city's part, he said.
The Nulmans are still a number of weeks away from taking any action on their property, Klingsporn said. First, the case goes back to the original trial court (Superior Court), which has to officially deny the Friends' petition.
The Friends could appeal to the state Supreme Court, he said.
Jeanne McDonnell, one of the leaders of the Friends group, said the group has not made a decision on whether to appeal the ruling. Members are still holding out hope that someone else will purchase the property and save the house, which was listed earlier this year on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The building was badly damaged in the 1989 earthquake.
McDonnell and other members of the group said they were disappointed in the judge's decision. Clark Akatiff, who is also in the Friends group, said they will continue to promote local awareness of Juana Briones and her historic contributions.
"I'm stunned and very saddened, but I believe there's a lot of people out there who will keep this project going," Akatiff told the Weekly. "I don't know what will happen next."
Klingsporn said his clients presently don't have a demolition permit and have no right to tear the building down. But after Wednesday's decision, he indicated that it's only a matter of time before Nulman and Welczer can proceed with their project.
"The court of appeal determined that the city got it right, and we were entitled to get a permit," Klingsporn said. "Unless a higher court decides otherwise, we will eventually be issued a demolition permit."