Family challenges ruling in land dispute

A Huntington Beach family is challenging a court ruling in favor of the city over a residential land dispute that began more than a decade ago.

An Orange County Superior Court judge this month tentatively ruled that Fidencio Alvarez and his family waived their right to challenge the city's demand for land to build a sidewalk and a travel lane because a lawsuit was not filed in a timely fashion.

But the family's lawyer, Michael Leifer, said the family was never required to give the city any land to begin with.

Leifer said when the city issued a building permit to allow the family to renovate their home in 2003, a land transfer was not required nor completed because the family paid for future street improvements in exchange.

"What happened to Alvarez is fundamentally wrong from the start," Leifer said.

The city acknowledges that the family paid for improvements and that a building permit was, unusually, issued before the land was transferred to Huntington Beach, but contends that the dedication was still required.

The dispute began when the Alvarez family, which owns three parcels on Garfield Boulevard, filed for a permit in 2001 to renovate a home at 7802 Garfield Blvd. The remodeling plans doubled the size of the house and allocated eight feet for a street sidewalk, as required by city code, said Huntington Beach Assistant City Attorney Scott Field.

The planning blueprints also showed another open space area, about 12 feet, where a travel lane would be built, Field said.

However, the two sides disagreed on who should pick up the cost of street improvements.

City records show that the permit application was approved by the Fire Department and by building in 2001. But it was held up by public works until July 18, 2003, upon payment of $11,600 for future street improvements.

A receipt shows a payment of $11,600 was made by Alvarez for future street improvements and widening on the same day the permit was issued.

Though the sidewalk land normally would have been transferred to the city prior to issuance of the building permit, the city went ahead and issued the permit without it. Field said there was an understanding between the city and the family that the land would be transferred at some point during the process and before the final inspection.

Court records confirm that understanding, though it went back to before the payment was made to Huntington Beach. In a 2002 letter to the city, the family said it has "no problem dedicating that portion of our land deemed necessary for future street widening and sidewalk improvements," according to court records.

"We were trying to be cooperative," Field said. "This is a case of no good deed goes unpunished."

Leifer said the city wasn't being cooperative, but issued the permit without the land transfer because it couldn't justify the need for the land.

"There's no evidence that the city was being cooperative," Leifer said. "The Alvarez home remodel didn't require a wider sidewalk or a full lane of travel. Garfield is 100 feet wide; they wanted 20 feet. The Alvarez home doesn't generate 20% of the traffic on Garfield."

In 2005, the renovations were completed and the house was reoccupied, but the city held out on issuing a final inspection because the family hadn't completed the land transfer.

In 2006, the city received grants to improve all of Garfield, and, at that point, offered to pay for 20 feet of land in front of the two additional parcels the Alvarez family owns, and 12 feet in front of the remodeled home, Field said.

The city argued that the family was already supposed to give eight feet of land in front of the renovated home for a sidewalk, and therefore Huntington Beach was not responsible for paying for it.

The family rejected the offer, which led the city to file a condemnation action in court in 2007, and took over the land it needed to build a sidewalk and a travel lane. The street has since been improved.

A final inspection on the house was issued in 2008.

In court, the family had planned on demanding that the city pays an additional $2.1 million in damages.

But Leifer didn't get the chance to argue for damages to the family because Judge Robert J. Moss sided with the city on the statue of limitation, saying that, "Whether defendants actually agreed to the dedication or not, it is clear they knew the city was requiring them to dedicate the property as a condition to authorizing the construction."

And if the family had disagreed with the city, it should have challenged Huntington Beach in a timely manner, Moss said.

"We think there are significant outstanding issues on the case," Leifer said.

The next court date is scheduled for July 16.

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