Saying that its civil rights were violated, home builder Southwest Diversified has sued the Marin County supervisors after the board changed its mind and denied the company permission to build a subdivision.
Southwest is asking at least $5 million in damages for what it says were violations of its constitutional rights to due process and equal protection under the law. The lawsuit is expected to be heard this summer.
Property owners have been filing similar suits for years when they feel that local governments are stepping on their property rights. But these days they have a better chance of winning, real estate lawyers say. That’s because a string of cases have gone their way in the U.S. Supreme Court in the last few years as conservative justices have upheld property owners’ rights against what they see as unreasonable government intrusion.
In the Southwest case, the county supervisors in September tentatively approved construction of 89 half-million-dollar houses on land that was originally zoned for 43. The vote was 3 to 2.
In February, though, when Southwest went back to the board for final approval, one of the supervisors in favor of the project had been replaced in the November elections; the new supervisor agreed with the two that 89 sounded like too many houses. The board said it might consider 75 but denied Southwest permission to build the other 14.
Southwest, based in Irvine, contends that under the law the supervisors cannot take back their approval of the subdivision. “They just decided to do something that was absolutely outside the law,” said William D. Foote, president of Southwest. “They’re difficult people to deal with.”
The county’s lawyers, Foote said, have offered to settle the case.
That may be so, but in the meantime those lawyers are arguing that the supervisors are perfectly within their rights to turn down Southwest even at a late stage.
Such suits are nothing new in Marin County. The semi-rural area north of San Francisco is home to many affluent commuters who are notoriously hostile to new construction.
“We hardly ever have a time,” County Counsel Douglas Maloney said, “when there aren’t millions and millions of dollars worth of cases pending against Marin.”