Quick Take:

In affirming his earlier decision, Judge Timothy Volkmann essentially ruled that plaintiffs Christopher Wheeler and Sarah Claus can access their property using a driveway that runs through Browne’s land. There was no word on whether Browne and his son, Ethan, would appeal.

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An Aptos couple’s four-year legal battle to build a home on land next to property owned by singer-songer Jackson Browne came to an end in a Santa Cruz courtroom on Monday when Superior Court Judge Timothy Volkmann issued a final judgment in the case.

Volkmann essentially ruled that Christopher Wheeler and Sarah Claus can access their property using a driveway that runs through Browne’s land.

Claus, a lab manager at UC Santa Cruz, and Wheeler, who is working on two biomedical startups, filed a lawsuit against Jackson Browne and his son, Ethan Browne, in 2019 amid an escalating dispute over the couple’s plans to build a 2,100-square-foot, four-bedroom home on 13 acres of land on Porter Gulch Road about 2 miles from Cabrillo College. The land is next door to property owned in trust by the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer. Ethan Browne was living there at the time.

The ruling reaffirmed a tentative statement of decision that Volkmann issued in December, as well as a proposed judgment from January, which found that the location of an easement — the core of the dispute — is Browne’s existing paved driveway and not a logging trail through Claus and Wheeler’s land, as argued by Browne’s attorneys.

The judge also ruled that Browne can’t block Wheeler and Claus from using the driveway and that the presence of construction vehicles and equipment during the building stage does not constitute a nuisance, which the Brownes had argued it did.

Volkmann ruled in favor of a request from Browne that Wheeler and Claus not be allowed to make certain modifications to the driveway. The driveway is out of code, meaning Claus and Wheeler need approval from local officials in order to have construction vehicles use the driveway to access their building site, and to finally move forward with the build.

In one change from the earlier preliminary judgment, the Brownes’ attorneys requested that Volkmann alter the wording of a section of his ruling that said Claus and Wheeler may still work with the relevant county agencies to attempt to obtain “whatever approvals that those entities determine are appropriate exercise of discretion” so that construction vehicles can use the driveway to build their home.

Browne’s counsel requested Volkman change the word “discretion” to “authority.” Attorney Larry Iser argued that the word “discretion” could potentially open the door for Claus and Wheeler to convince the relevant governmental bodies that the judgment means they aren’t required to follow the county code.

“Your Honor wants to be neutral, not saying one way or another what the county should do. The word ‘authority’ is just that, it is whatever authority they have under the statute,” Iser said. “Compare that to discretion, which they [the plaintiffs] could say gives the county discretion, when they don’t have discretion.”

Volkmann will officially file the final judgment no later than Tuesday. Wheeler and Claus, meanwhile, said they are ready to put the matter behind them. “It’s a distraction we’re happy to see go away,” said Claus.

Now, they say, the next step is to gather the relevant legal documents once the final ruling is filed, and contact their contractor and county agencies to finally begin moving forward with building their home, starting with septic and electric systems.

While Claus and Wheeler said they feel the proceedings went about as well as they could have, there is always the possibility of a Browne appeal. But that isn’t deterring them from going ahead with their building plans.

“An appeal won’t stop us from moving forward,” said Wheeler. “It’ll just drain our funds more.”

As of publication time, Browne attorneys Iser and Capitola-based Edward Newman had not responded to questions regarding whether Jackson and Ethan Browne intend to appeal.

Max Chun is the general-assignment correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Max’s position has pulled him in many different directions, seeing him cover development, COVID, the opioid crisis, labor, courts...