Settlement reached in Tahoe takings case

  In 1989, Bernadine Suitum had planned to build a retirement home on a plot of land near Lake Tahoe (HCN, 7/7/97). But instead of breaking ground, Suitum found herself deep in a ferocious legal battle with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the bistate office charged with overseeing development around the lake. Now, a decade later, the agency has agreed to pay Suitum $600,000 for blocking her plans to build an A-frame home on her 18,300 square-foot piece of property.

"On balance, it was in the agency's interest to settle the case," says John O. Marshall, general counsel for the agency. "This wasn't the case we wanted to fight all the way to the Supreme Court."

The planning agency denied her a building permit because her lot was in an area that acted as a natural filter for erosion, protecting the lake's renowned clarity. The agency told Suitum she had to leave her lot vacant, but said she could sell her development rights to other people who wanted to build bigger houses than regulations allow. Suitum sued instead. Her argument was simple: the agency's denial of her building permit was a taking, and she deserved compensation.

Suitum lost in court and again on appeal. In 1997, however, the U.S. Supreme Court said the lower courts were wrong and ordered them to take another look.

Suitum, now 84, lives in Sacramento and is legally blind. Her lawyer, Pat Cashill, says the settlement leaves the agency with only two options. Says Cashill, "Either let people build or buy their land."

*Tim Westby

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