Young Family Wins Court Test Over Age Restrictions : Housing: Lawsuit pitted couple and children against an Oceanside development intended for seniors only. The long-term significance of the decision is unclear.


Older residents of Peacock Hills in Oceanside have lost their lawsuit to force a young family to leave the 920-unit development that was supposedly restricted to seniors.

Vista Superior Court Judge Thomas Murphy has ruled that there is no issue for trial because an earlier court judgment held that Peacock Hills is a business-like entity subject to state law banning discriminatory practices.

In granting a motion for summary judgment, the judge allowed Kevin and Stephanie Bell, who are in their late 20s, and their two children to remain in the small home they bought in 1988.

The Peacock Hills Architectural Committee filed suit in October, 1989, claiming that the Bells should be ousted because they violated the project's age requirement that at least one resident per unit be 55 or older.

"Now that the Bells have prevailed, it proves there was discrimination by Peacock Hills," Jack Turner, the Bells' attorney, said Friday.

However, the long-term significance of the victory is unclear because the ruling will be appealed, the Bells intend to move elsewhere for a bigger house, and a similar case involving Peacock Hills is before a higher court.

"We're really happy he ruled in our favor and thought it was fair," Stephanie Bell said Friday. "We're definitely going to move, but not for another year."

If nothing else, the ruling represents another milestone in the long legal saga that has pitted young against old in this clean but modest 1970s-era duplex project near Oceanside and College boulevards.

Although the Bells won, their neighbors across the street, Karen and Richard West, lost a similar case in Vista Superior Court after a two-day trial in October, 1990.

The Wests were ordered to leave Peacock Hills within 90 days, but are still living there until the appeals court considers their request to overturn the Superior Court decision.

Attorney Alan Burson, representing the architectural committee, said Friday that the outcome of the West case would also influence what happens to the Bells. "We're going to appeal this one, but clearly the West case will by-and-large determine this case also," he said.

In essence, Murphy looked at the same basic facts as the judge in the West case, but drew a different conclusion.

Seeking affordable housing, the Wests, who are in their 30s, bought a 900-square-foot home with a patio in Peacock Hills in 1986. They were aware that there had been an earlier lawsuit over the age requirement, but thought the decision cleared the way for them to buy.

In that earlier case involving Michael and Marion Rhines, who lived in a different part of Peacock Hills, the Superior Court ruled the age requirement was invalid because the architectural committee was a business-like entity subject to the state Unruh Civil Rights Act that prohibits discriminatory business practices.

Further, the court said that Peacock Hills didn't offer design features and amenities to qualify it as a development for senior citizens.

But, in 1989, the state Legislature relaxed the Unruh Act by requiring only that a development offer lower-cost housing for the elderly in order to qualify as senior housing.

By then, the architectural committee was already suing the Wests for violating the age requirement. In October, 1990, Superior Court Judge Franklin Mitchell found that the change to the Unruh Act made Peacock Hills clearly for seniors only.

The judge ordered the Wests to move, and said the couple had chosen to take a risk by purchasing a home despite the controversy over the age restriction.

As the West case went up to the appeals court, the Legislature, made aware of what had happened, passed a bill allowing the Wests and the Bells to stay at Peacock Hills because they had bought their units before the Unruh Act was relaxed in 1989 and thus should be "grandfathered."

Meanwhile, the Bells were facing a court battle over their own alleged violation of the age restriction.

However, last summer the suit was dismissed because the Bells had supposedly agreed to sell their home and leave Peacock Hills.

But the case was reactivated in late 1991 because "they were going to move but they didn't," Peacock Hills attorney Burson said.

Turner, representing the Bells, said the couple had put their house on the market and found a buyer, but the deal fell through partly because of the legal cloud over the age requirement.

At any rate, Turner felt the Bells were protected by the grandfather provision approved by the Legislature. But Burson maintained the grandfather protection didn't apply because the Bells had a second child while living in Peacock Hills.

"The grandfather clause doesn't grandfather families, it grandfathers persons," Burson said.

The suit never went to trial as Judge Murphy ruled on Feb. 26 that the earlier Rhines case still held despite the later legislation, and there were no triable issues between Peacock Hills and the Bells.

Oral arguments on Murphy's decision to grant summary judgment on behalf of the Bells were held March 6, but the judge didn't change his mind. The court's actions were disclosed by attorneys late this week.

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