ENCINITAS — The city of Encinitas and a Leucadia couple took a step toward ending a more-than-a-decade-old legal battle over a converted garage unit at the couple’s La Veta Avenue home.
Calling the choice a “compassionate yet constructive” decision, the Council voted unanimously to form a council subcommittee of Kristin Gaspar and Tony Kranz to negotiate a settlement with Russell and Lynn Marr, which city staf says owe $187,680 — nearly $95,000 in attorneys fees the city won in a 2004 default judgement against the couple over a studio unit, which the city deemed was an illegally converted garage in 2002, and $92,000 in interest.
The Council’s decision came after friends of the couple implored the city to take a less adversarial stance and lift the weight of the $187,000 property lien from the family’s shoulders.
“Anything is better than what it has been, so I am very happy with the decision tonight,” said Russell Marr, a disabled Vietnam War veteran. “I’ve never made more than $50,000 a year in my life, so if you compare me to the city, which brings in $50 million a year, how would they feel if I told them they owed me $200 million, because that is what they are basically doing to us.”
The complex, winding saga dates back to 1998, when code enforcement first notified Lynn Marr that the unit was an unpermitted, illegal dwelling unit. The couple has contended that the structure was part of the home when Lynn Marr and her daughters purchased it in 1991.
In 2002, the city sued the Marrs after, according to city staff reports, they refused to bring it up to code.
The lawsuit followed a raid on the Marr residence in August 2002, which, according to Lynn Marr, included six deputy sheriff’s battering ram in hand, and a code enforcement officer. The Marrs contend that the raid was excessive and violated their rights.
The city won a default judgment against the couple on July 19, 2004.
The Marrs fought the case, arguing the city violated their rights in its pursuit of the judgment, which, according to documents, they said was granted after a “one-sided kangaroo court” proceeding. They appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court, which declined to review the case in 2007. At the same time, city officials said the couple rejected an offer to settle.
Lynn Marr contends that the city refused several attempts by the couple to bring the home in compliance with the city, most recently this month.
After several years of inactivity, the city renewed efforts to collect the debt in July, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the judgment, when a tax lien filed against the property was set to expire.
The Marrs responded this week by filing a motion to vacate the lien, known as an abstract of judgment. A motion hearing is scheduled for Jan. 9, 2015.
The city’s vote essentially resets the clock back to 2007, when the council extended a settlement agreement that would forgive the judgement if the couple brought the home up to city code for five years. It is not clear whether the subcommittee will include total forgiveness of the judgment, as the City Attorney’s office has now taken the stance that such an action would be considered an illegal gift of public funds.
Supporters of the Marrs told the Council — none of whose members were involved with the original legal battle or setttlement talks — that justice would not be served by trying to collect a huge debt from a disabled veteran and a woman who is battling cancer.
“As a former journalist, I was always taught about the five w’s: who, what, when, where and why,” Lorri Greene said. “I can answer the first four, but I don’t know the ‘why.’”
Supporters acknowledged that the Marrs made missteps in their fight with city hall, including refusing to accept the terms of the 2007 settlement and alienating themselves from staff, council and the courts. But they said the missteps were the result of the city’s hostile stance.
“We have to remember that Russell is a disabled military who was trained by the U.S. government to stand up, fight and die, if necessary, for what is right and just, and he has a reputation for doing so,” said Bob Bonde, a longtime fixture in Encinitas and friend of the Marrs. “The Marrs believe they did never did anything wrong, and would not accept any form of guilty plea that would infer otherwise.”
Others accused the city of selective enforcement, as they said the city is dotted with similar converted dwelling units.
Greene posed an ultimatum to the city: forgive the debt or enforce the code.
“Or you can just vacate the judgment, and call it what it is: a vendetta, a vendetta that has gone on for far too long,” Greene said.
The City Council’s vote on Wednesday also included the city hiring an independent mediator to guide the settlement discussions.
This story has been updated since its previous posting.