By PAUL GONZALEZ
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
A Santa Barbara jury has ordered the city of Santa Barbara to pay $2.4 million to a Mesa property owner refusing to let him build a home on his land after a lengthy legal battle.
Thomas Felkay owns a vacant ocean front lot at 1925 El Camino De La Luz. He bought the property in 2006 for $850,000, but the City refused to issue building permits because a mudslide destroyed the house located on that property in 1978.
“Plaintiff (Mr. Felkay) admitted he knew development of the Property would be a challenge and that he specialized in purchasing and developing distressed properties since 1972,” read a statement of decision published by Judge Anderle on Oct. 22, 2019.
On Oct. 1-3, 2019, Judge Anderle held a court trial to determine the city’s liability for inverse condemnation and a constitutional taking of the property. Judge Anderle found the city liable and a jury trial was held in January to determine damages.
The jury returned a verdict for Mr. Felkay on Monday.
Judge Anderle will also rule on the amount of costs, expert and attorney fees that the City must pay to Mr. Felkay in addition to the judgment of $2.4 million. Mr. Felkay’s attorney, Joseph Liebman, estimated the final total due to Mr. Felkay will likely exceed $4.5 million.
Mr. Elkay has spent more than $1.5 million in expert and attorney fees so far.
“The city denied the permit as violating (Local Coastal Program) Policy 8.2, prohibiting the construction on the bluff face. The city has elected to treat this matter as a permanent taking of the value of the property and not rescind its permit denial to constitute a temporary taking,” said Mr. Liebman in a statement.
He explained that the city’s conduct constituted a “total taking” of the property because it rendered the property unbuildable and valueless.
“By implementing and enforcing the building prohibition of LCP 8.2 as applied to the property and preventing plaintiff from building on the property, the city deprived plaintiff of all economically beneficial use of the property,” he quoted from Judge Anderle’s statement of decision.
Mr. Felkay argued that LCP 8.2 restricts bluff face development and prevented him from building below the 127-foot elevation. The city granted him an easement to build above the bluff edge, but Mr. Felkay countered that area is not buildable and therefore the property must be left vacant.
“When an owner is called upon to leave his property economically idle, he has suffered a taking. Vacant land does not give rise to even some economically beneficial use of the property,” wrote Judge Anderle in his decision.
“Vacant land does not give rise to even some economically beneficial use of the property, simply because the property owner still retained the ‘right to alienate the land, which would have value for neighbors and for those
prepared to enjoy proximity to the ocean without a house’ that this residual value could defeat the per se takings claim,” he continued.
According to court records, new hearing dates have been set.