A neighborhood feud that has been waged at La Cañada Flintridge City Hall for more than five years may soon come to an end, with City Council members deciding Monday to broker an easement over a disputed slice of land.
Dr. Philip Merritt has been fighting with neighbors and the city to use Windermere Place, a street off Inverness Drive that exists in name only, to access a home he plans to build on hillside property that abuts Hampstead Road.
The city-drafted easement proposal would allow Merritt to build Windermere as a private driveway instead, with neighbors also having rights to use it if they agree to share construction costs.
If signed into effect in coming weeks by the city and Merritt, it would also diffuse threats by Merritt to file a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the city.
Merritt previously won a court battle with the city over the right to develop Windermere Place as a public street, but earlier this year offered to narrow the scope of the project down to a driveway — though only if he were allowed to purchase the land from the city.
Council members initially favored the driveway idea, which would reduce the requirement for guardrails and retaining walls, as a way to lessen impacts on neighbors. That proposal failed in February, however, when council remembers refused to sell the land to Merritt after neighbors objected and Merritt declined a compromise easement.
A few weeks after that decision, Merritt filed a claim against the city — the first step in eventually filing another lawsuit — demanding public funding for the construction of Windermere Place.
Council members discussed that claim in a closed session meeting two weeks ago, but delayed a decision, instead opting for the easement this week.
Representing Drs. Cecilie Boysen and Soren Madsen, who live adjacent to Windermere and have opposed Merritt, attorney Frank Gooch complained to council members that the city was caving to legal pressure.
“This [easement proposal] has all happened since February, and the only thing to happen since then is that Merritt filed a claim against the city. I think it’s dangerous for the council to set a precedent that if you threaten to sue the city, we’ll reconsider,” said Gooch, who asked that any decision be postponed.
City Attorney Mark Steres said officials began crafting an easement — the option council members previously favored — only after Merritt recently expressed willingness to accept one.
Council members approved the easement 4-0, with Councilman Steve Del Guercio abstaining due to his law firm’s relationship with a property owner.
“I disagree strongly with Mr. Gooch’s speculation that this action is motivated by the threat or prospect of a suit. My preference [in February] was for an easement. The ‘no’ vote was instigated by [Merritt] saying a sale was the only way to go,” said Councilman Donald Voss.
“From the outset, the stated desire of the neighbors was to mitigate impacts,” continued Voss. “I’ve favored the driveway option all along, and this, I think, is the path to reach that.”
Madsen, who had argued in February that the city should retain control over the Windermere right of way, told council members he worried the easement unfairly caters to Merritt’s needs over neighbors’ concerns.
The easement document will return to council members for final approval after city staffers add details about how Madsen and other neighbors would share costs if they decide to use the driveway to access their properties.
But even after approval, Merritt and his opponents would find themselves back at City Hall because the easement requires Planning Commission approval of the driveway’s design and plans for the landscaping around it.
Merritt’s attorney, Arnold Graham, said he worries opponents could try to derail Planning Commission approval.
“The concept of this resolution is good, if it’s allowed to be implemented,” said Graham. But, he added, “the champagne cork hasn’t been popped yet.”