Landowners say 'cabal' imposing environmental restrictions

Vancouver sues, citing violations, but couple say officials and neighbors ganged up on them

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 
photoDaniel and Lidia Grozav's property in the Ellsworth Springs neighborhood.

A prominent house on sensitive and heavily regulated land near the corner of Ellsworth and French roads is the subject of a long-running civil lawsuit with no end in sight. The city of Vancouver is the plaintiff.

In a 35-page lawsuit, the city claims that property owners Daniel and Lidia Grozav have let numerous environmental and neighborhood nuisance violations go uncorrected for years at 10642 S.E. French Road.

The Grozavs' counter-claim is that the many environmental regulations and constraints on their property were imposed by a "cabal" determined to deprive them of the use and enjoyment of their private property, "not for any legitimate public purpose." The "cabal" included elected officials, city workers and members of the Ellsworth Springs Neighborhood Association, the Grozavs claim.

Claims and counterclaims were filed in Clark County Superior Court in late 2011 and 2012, following earlier negotiations toward a "reasonable use" agreement that began in 2006 and dragged on for years. An agreement was signed in 2007, but the Grozavs have claimed that Daniel signed the agreement under "extreme pressure, coercion and duress" by the city, and furthermore that his wife and co-owner Lidia Grozav never signed the agreement at all.

As recently as last month, the Grozavs asked for a spring 2014 jury trial, but the court granted the city's request not to set a date because the process of discovery still requires depositions, including the depositions of the Grozavs themselves.

It's also possible that "middle ground" could still be found before a trial gets underway, said Assistant City Attorney Jonathan Young. That remains the city's aim, according to another assistant city attorney, who first filed the lawsuit.

"We have the duty to protect the environment. Under state law, it's our job. But we also have a responsibility to comply with the constitution, which allows people the reasonable use of private property" — even when it's property as "highly constrained" as this, said Assistant City Attorney Linda Marousek.

In mid-December, Daniel Grozav agreed to a Columbian visit to the property; Lidia Grozav called back later to cancel the visit. The couple had no comment for this story.

Stephen Murphy, the longtime chairman of the Ellsworth Springs Neighborhood Association, would say little about the Grozav matter because it's in litigation — except that his group's primary interest is "protecting the habitat, the tree canopy, the wetlands that have been established by the city and the state." It's unfortunate that the Grozavs feel singled out, he said, because their property is only one small piece of a larger woodsy area that the neighborhood association has always actively defended against environmental degradation.

Murphy added that he believes the matter has been allowed to drag on for years because it's "a small issue" but would require a lot of city staff time to dispose of. A neighbor who called The Columbian to complain about the matter but wouldn't give a name said she'd heard the same thing: too much money and too little at stake, which leaves the sensitive lands and habitat in Ellsworth Springs the real loser, she said.

There is speculation that the house, which has six bedrooms and five full baths according to county property records, is, or will be, a foster home for aging adults. The Grozavs own a company called Pleasant Family Home Care, but the property listed as both their business and home address is nearby on Angus Street in Cascade Park.

Encumbered

When Daniel Grozav first wanted to buy and develop the property in 2005, Marousek said, city staffers met with him to describe just how "encumbered" the land is. "It has slopes, big trees, bird habitats, it's close to a spring and a stream. He bought it anyway and started to develop it," Marousek said.

The property is 1.25 acres and "encompassed entirely by wetland, riparian and priority habit, environmentally critical areas and critical area buffers," according to the city suit. It is crossed, northeast to west, by Possum Creek.

In 2006, the Grozavs sought and received a "reasonable use" exception to various restrictions on the land, allowing them to build on their property but also imposing new restrictions on exactly what and where. Both the Grozavs and the Ellsworth Springs Neighborhood Association appealed the reasonable use exception, and in summer of 2007 various settlement agreements were signed by all three parties.

But Daniel Grozav promptly "asked a number of times to change the settlement agreement," Marousek said. "The city specifically went to the neighborhood association a couple of times to present his request, and they said 'no.' " And that was that, she said. The city issued a final certificate of occupancy for the Grozav house in June 2011.

But according to the city's 2012 complaint, the Grozavs "willfully and continuously violated" all these agreements, as well as city code and state law. In July 2011, the city issued two "stop work" orders at the site; the Grozavs complied with one but not both, Marousek said.

The city's complaint lists violations of numerous ordinances governing everything from critical areas and tree preservation to public nuisances. It claims unpermitted concrete paving in habitat areas and within the drip lines of protected trees; removal of wetlands vegetation, trees and woody debris from habitat areas; open storage of building materials and firewood in wetland buffers and habitat areas; placement of wiring and lighting in a designated stream buffer; wounding tree roots with tools and machinery; failure to comply with an approved tree plan; construction of a driveway and circular turn-around where trees had been illegally removed and were supposed to be replaced; unpermitted and substandard electrical cables buried underground; improper stabilization of denuded areas, allowing erosion of sediment into a nearby stream; and more.

Washington has been involved, too. The Department of Ecology was alerted about an oily sheen on Possum Creek in August 2011; it cleaned up the mess and sent a warning letter to the Grozavs finding that the oil "most likely" came from heavy equipment on their property.

And after the Grozavs rerouted Possum Creek and dug a pond, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2011 told Daniel Grozav to "fix a lot of what he'd done," according to spokesman Craig Bartlett. "What he was required to do mostly involved planting trees and shrubs and stabilizing this streambank that was taken out of its normal course. We didn't fine him; we just set out mitigation actions for him," Bartlett said.

Contrivances?

The Grozavs' argument is that a "cabal" of city elected officials and staff were joined by the Ellsworth Springs Neighborhood Association in putting up a "united front" against them. They claim that city officials specifically OK'd various developments on the property, including pavement — but when the work had been done the city reversed itself and "immediately undertook legal action," claiming that codes and regulations had been violated.

The Grozavs also claim that the city pressured Daniel to sign that settlement agreement by assuring him he would never be allowed to build a house on his property unless he signed. Ultimately, the Grozavs claim, they were forced to build a house on a small and "totally unsuitable" piece of their land along the southern street frontage.

Plus, the Grozavs also claim that their land was a "tramp jungle" as well as a dumping spot for adjoining neighbors' trash, hazardous materials and even animal carcasses before they bought it and cleaned it up. The neighbors are chiefly to blame for any mess, they claim.

Assistant city attorney Young called this a "two-part" lawsuit. In addition to the claimed environmental violations themselves, the city is claiming a breach of contract in construction that proceeded allegedly in violation of the agreement that the city, the Grozavs and the neighborhood association all signed.

The fact that there's now a finished "larger upscale home" on the land adds to the difficulty of the suit, Young said.