WatchSonoma Watch

Court fines Santa Rosa $40,000 in bike access case



A state appeals court has fined the city of Santa Rosa nearly $40,000 for frivolous legal filings in its effort to preserve the right of bicyclists to ride through a bikegated community near Oakmont.

The First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco issued the sanctions in a case handled by Assistant City Attorney John Fritsch.

The three-judge panel found that Fritsch should have known that his appeal of a previous ruling against the city was baseless, and ordered the city to pay the attorneys’ fees of the Villages at Wild Oak Association.

“Based on the record as a whole, including the city’s repeated pattern of ignoring or misrepresenting relevant authority, we are persuaded that any reasonable attorney would agree the grounds the city relied upon to advance its appeal completely lacked merit and would not have pursued the appeal,” Justice Maria Rivera wrote.

The ruling was applauded by Joseph LaVigna, president of homeowners association for the gated community through which the disputed easement runs, connecting Oakmont to the eastern entrance of Annadel State Park.

“We are grateful that this nearly-two-year detour, which the city insisted upon, has ended,” LaVigna said. “We feel vindicated by the Court of Appeals, and – with reimbursement for our defense of its appeal, thanks to the city’s improper actions – we look forward to a trial on the merits of both claims.”

City Attorney Caroline Fowler said she disagreed with the court’s ruling.

“We don’t file frivolous appeals,” Fowler said. “The language they chose to use is somewhat harsh and I think a mischaracterization.”

Santa Rosa sued the association of 61 homes in 2010 after it posted “No trespassing” and “No bicycles” signs along a path through the neighborhood long used by bicyclists and others.

The city, pointing to the resolutions passed by the city approving the subdivision, contends an easement allows bicyclists, pedestrians and horse riders to use the path. The association, citing land records, claims the easement is only for pedestrians and emergency vehicle access. The city says the more restrictive description in land records was an “inadvertent” mistake by city staff more than 30 years ago.

After the city sued, the association counter-sued, filing what is called a cross-complaint claiming damages against the city for allegedly created a nuisance for its homeowners and encouraging bicyclists to trespass on private property.

The city then filed what is known as an “anti-SLAPP motion” seeking dismissal of the association’s cross-complaint.

A SLAPP lawsuit, or Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation, is a legal action intended “to chill the valid exercise of constitutional rights.” State law meant to protect free speech rights allows people to recover their legal fees in defending themselves against such suits.

When the homeowners association counter-sued, the city fired back with the anti-SLAAP motion on the theory that the city was pursuing an “issue of public interest” and it should be protected against such frivolous lawsuits.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Elliot Daum ruled against the city in 2011, writing that it had not made “any evidentiary showing whatsoever” that the association’s countersuit lacked merit. Daum denied the association’s request for attorneys fees, however.

But when the city appealed, the appellate court took a closer look at the city’s arguments and found them to be decidedly lacking. The justices seemed particularly troubled by what they called the city’s effort to ignore applicable case law. Even after the relevance of one particular case was made clear in briefs and oral argument, “the City stuck to its guns and refused to acknowledge the rule established by the case.”

The court described the omission as “willful” and some of its other legal arguments “inexplicable.”

LaVigna said he finds it ironic that the city would claim the association’s counter-suit was frivolous when the city is the one wasting two years on a baseless appeal.

“They turned this statute upside down and on its head,” LaVigna said.

Fowler said the city is evaluating its options. The decision doesn’t affect the merits of the underlying case, she said. It only allows the counter-claim, which includes a request for damages, to move forward against the city, she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter@citybeater

9 Responses to “Court fines Santa Rosa $40,000 in bike access case”

  1. Big jim says:

    The bicycle access was there before the neighborhood. These rich 1%’s should not be allowed to trample on the rights of the lowly bicycle riders just because they want an exclusive enclave. No trampling on people’s right to pass through here.

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  2. bear says:

    According to the industry, we have a “100-year supply” of gas and oil.

    What happens to energy prices when half of this is gone? LMAO.

    Your grandchildren will hate you.

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  3. Grapevines says:

    When are we going to stop caving in to the bicycle collation?

    $800,000 wasted in planning a bridge in the sky over 101, and we all know it’s never going to happen. Who knows how much in redesigning and re-striping streets to designate “bicycle lanes”. and who knows how much time, energy, and money went into the latest “be nice to bicycle riders” ordinance?

    And now $40,000 to pay the attorney fees for what the appeals court labeled as being the stupidest thing they have encountered lately.

    Lets stop this idiotic waste of funds and start doing things that make sense for all of us and not just a few of the “two wheeled” stretchy-clothed folk.

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  4. James Bennett says:

    Molesting property rights, then defending it and paying fines with our money.
    When it comes to undermining, taking private property, an ICLEI Charter especially Sonoma County has more tools than a contractor.

    Let’s see, I couldn’t possibly remember them all;.
    “View Sheds”, “Water Sheds”, “Waterways” (with tyrannical easement set backs), “Wetlands”, “Wilderness Corridors”, “Open Space Corridors”, “Transportation Corridors”. Fascist Favors for more connected citizens (I’m fighting one of those so egregious you wouldn’t believe it). Smart Train and Sonoma Greed Power both have eminent domain provisions (hope your land isn’t picked as a site for solar arrays or wind mills).
    Then you’ve got contrived environmental instruments; disturbing mating habits of critters locals have never seen.
    Now with Plan Bay Area (we’re not supposed to know a…bout it) and it’s partner in crime SB 1, private property rights for the 9 Counties and 101 Cities in the Bay Area could be a thing of the past.
    Reducing all the land into a Redevelopment “Region” on steroids.
    Except this time, instead of private property being subject to eminent domain if fitting into a molested definition of “Blight”, it’ll be much broader.
    This time around it’ll be property considered part of…you won’t believe it…
    “inefficient land use patterns”.
    Well, 96% of the Bay Area will be vulnerable, because it’s not in the PDA!

    Some response-able citizens have had to file a law suit after the people’s wishes were ignored at the “Visioning” meetings (sound familiar?).

    To learn about the most significant law suit to our freedoms, and why our local government’s ideology holds property rights in such low regard:


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  5. Emerson Burkett says:

    Score one for Common Sense. “The Justices seemed particularly troubled by what they called the City’s effort to ignore applicable case law.” About time someone slapped down the bicycle folks, or the “it’s all about us and our entitlements”. Maybe the City ought to back off it’s totally pro-bike stance. And please, no useless bridges over the freeway. Some one needs to start a ballot measure to LICENSE BICYCLES.

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  6. Steve Humphrey says:

    All this because a few bicyclists wanted access through private property to a State Park.
    Seriously, isn’t it time to start licensing bicycles so the public no longer has to subsidize peddling?

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  7. Originalst says:

    The city tried to disregard case law and precedent! How ironic, the federal court in San Francisco regularly disregards decisions of the Supreme Court when it would effect the decision they choose to make.
    This is why the people must have a direct and simple way to remove corrupt judges from all courts.

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  8. Graeme Wellington says:

    I hope more court rulings like this come out and I’m hoping for a “loser pays” tort reform law too. Why are all those doctors and valuable patent holders moving their business to Texas? Because of loser pays laws in the civil system.

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  9. Reality Check says:

    Now is the time for the city council and city manager to reconsider the competence of the city attorney. Appellate courts don’t often slap government attorneys this way.

    In any case, congratulations to Wild Oak homeowners and good luck in their fight to preserve their property rights.

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