Nightmare in Aptos paradise as Jackson Browne property dispute heads toward court decision

Plaintiffs Christopher Wheeler and Sarah Claus.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

On Monday, Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Timothy Volkmann is expected to issue a final ruling on the Aptos property dispute between singer Jackson Browne and a local couple. While the legal arguments of the case could turn on the nuances of easement and property law, the dispute between Christopher Wheeler and Sarah Claus and the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer also offers a rare glimpse at the fault lines over wealth, privilege and the price of privacy that exist in Santa Cruz County, where the median home price now stands at $1.3 million.

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As Christopher Wheeler and Sarah Claus readied to move from Southern California to Santa Cruz County in 2018, the couple’s excitement for a new stage of life was palpable.

“I distinctly remember calling out to Chris and saying, ‘We’re not being couch potatoes, I want some adventure,’” said Claus. “Now, whenever I hear that word ‘adventure,’ I say that I wish I never said that,” she said.

That adventure in Santa Cruz County homeownership brought the husband and wife to a pristine patch of buildable land in Aptos. The 13-acre property seemed perfect, surrounded by lush grasses and redwoods, with a partial ocean view.

But the project would turn out to be far more of an adventure than they bargained for, plunging the couple into a costly, multiyear court battle with their next-door neighbor and one of Santa Cruz County’s most famous property owners: 74-year-old singer-songwriter Jackson Browne.

In the nearly five years since they purchased their property, Claus, 56, and Wheeler, 61, have been embroiled in what can best be described as a neighbor dispute gone disastrously wrong — a disagreement that has primarily involved the couple and Jackson Browne’s eldest son, Ethan Browne, 49, who lived at the Aptos home owned by his father until late 2019. Although years have passed, Claus and Wheeler have been unable to build, and have bounced around between friends’ places in Rio Del Mar and Capitola.

Wheeler flips through building plans and property maps.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Both Jackson and Ethan Browne are named as defendants in the civil case Claus and Wheeler launched against them. Both Brownes declined interview requests. Their Santa Monica-based lawyer, Larry Iser, who answered questions on their behalf, said via email that his clients did not intend to comment on “the facts underlying the lawsuit.”

However, Santa Cruz Superior Court records, in-depth interviews with the couple and email correspondence with Iser paint a picture of an escalating series of disagreements over an easement that allows Claus and Wheeler to access their property. Is that easement a long, winding paved driveway that runs through the Brownes’ land or a separate, overgrown and unpaved logging trail?

A preliminary “statement of decision” from the court in December found that while Claus and Wheeler’s easement is, in fact, the Brownes’ driveway, it will be up to county government and fire department officials to determine whether it is safe for the couple to build a house along the driveway, which is out of code.

The battle is set to be decided Monday in a Santa Cruz courtroom, where Superior Court Judge Timothy Volkmann is expected to issue a final ruling on the remaining details of the judgment.

While the legal arguments of the case could turn on the nuances of easement and property law, the dispute between the middle-class couple and the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer also offers a rare glimpse at the fault lines over wealth, privilege and the price of privacy that exist in Santa Cruz County, where the median home price now stands at $1.3 million.

Claus, who manages an undergraduate lab at UC Santa Cruz, and Wheeler, who is working on biomedical startups to treat Alzheimer’s disease and brain tumors, say they have hemorrhaged an estimated $350,000 in legal fees that could have gone toward construction costs and building materials. And four years after buying the property, they are still no closer to being in a permanent home.

“We don’t have another home, so that’s why we fight this battle,” said Claus. “It doesn’t seem fair that [the Brownes] can put us through this. They have got other houses and so much money. This is nothing to them. For us, it’s a livelihood.”

A home among the redwoods

The couple’s journey from Ventura County to Aptos started when Claus accepted a job as a lab manager at UC Santa Cruz, which began in February 2018. Claus’ father, who lived in Berkeley, was in poor health, and the move would allow them to be closer to him. (He has since died.)

The couple sold their house in Newbury Park, near Thousand Oaks, for about $650,000, netting about $250,000. But they quickly realized that the proceeds of the sale weren’t enough to afford a home in the Santa Cruz area’s expensive housing market.

Claus earns about $50,000 annually working at UCSC. Mortgage lenders considered Wheeler to be self-employed and wouldn’t allow his income to be used to qualify for a loan. So the couple, facing housing challenges shared by so many locally, turned to what seemed like a more affordable option: buying a piece of land and building a house.

They were close to putting an offer on a property in Monterey County when Wheeler’s cousin suggested the couple take a look at her neighbor’s property in Aptos, which had recently come up for sale. The land, on Porter Gulch Road about 2 miles from Cabrillo College, is peaceful and bucolic. Redwoods and lush grass surrounded the 13 acres and a long, 500-plus-foot driveway winds through the trees and up a steep hill, where the couple’s build site sits overlooking the Aptos area, just high enough to catch a glimpse of the ocean and coastal fog bank in the distance.

The unpaved path leading to the site where Wheeler and Claus hope to build.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The property’s hilly terrain appealed to the pair, who met road racing in Berkeley. Claus, a UC Santa Cruz graduate, even remembered using the property during her student days to access the adjacent Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. Even more appealing, the property was priced at $100,000 less than they had been prepared to spend in Monterey, for three times the amount of land. They would also be able to finance the $300,000 purchase through a private loan from the seller, who had inherited the property after her brother passed away.

“We were really in love with the place as soon as we saw it,” Wheeler said. “It was way better than any place we saw. Way more potential. Way closer to [Claus’] work. All the boxes were checked. And it’s gorgeous.”

They envisioned being able to eventually build other tiny homes on wheels on the property, something they thought could help add to the region’s limited stock of affordable housing. “For us, it felt like an alleviation for a lot of the housing problem, not just ours,” Claus said. “What if we could [house] a Cabrillo College professor, or a high school teacher?” The couple hired a surveyor, geologist, contractor and septic engineer to make sure the land was buildable and began preparing to build a four-bedroom, 2,100-square-foot house with enough space for their grown children to visit from out of town. Their contractor estimated it would cost about $400,000 to build.

Famous neighbors

The couple can’t quite recall how they found out that Jackson Browne owned the property next to theirs, but they were aware of the property’s celebrity connection before they began preliminary work on their build site.

Jackson Browne was one of the foundational artists of the mellow folk-rock sound of Southern California in the late 1960s and ’70s, first emerging as a young songwriter and folk musician. As a neighbor and friend of the Eagles’ Glenn Frey, Browne first struck it big when his song “Take It Easy” was a hit for the Eagles. In the 1970s, Browne became a platinum-selling act in his own right with his hit albums “The Pretender” and “Running on Empty.”

Browne purchased the Aptos property in 1982 with his mother, Beatrice Koeppel, who died in 1988, according to public records. Koeppel’s husband, Tom Koeppel, continued to live at the property until his death in 1993. Jackson Browne currently owns the property in trust, Iser said. It is unclear whether Jackson Browne himself ever lived at the property, and Iser didn’t respond to a question about how recently the singer-songwriter visited the Aptos home. Claus and Wheeler say they never saw the famous singer at the property. Their only interaction with him was to briefly exchange nods in court.

The unit Wheeler and Claus rented in late 2018 and early 2019.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In a court declaration, the couple said they met Ethan Browne in November 2018 as they were planning to purchase the property. Claus and Wheeler had set up a travel trailer on their property to live in while they built their house, but local regulations prevented them from occupying it until the site was hooked up to utilities.

With two dogs and a cat and nowhere to live, Claus and Wheeler struck an agreement with Ethan Browne to rent a guest house on the Brownes’ property as they prepared for construction. “It was a place to land,” Claus said. “It was never our intention to stay very long.”

Bad blood begins

Shortly after they moved into the guest house, the couple said that the relationship between the two parties started to sour. Claus said the unit was essentially a two-car garage that was in poor condition when they moved in.

According to Claus, Ethan Browne often asked her to take care of his dogs. In a court declaration, the couple said the Brownes’ property manager, Corrina Miller, began alleging rental agreement violations, only one of which — the mistaken parking of two vehicles on a turnout of the Brownes’ cul-de-sac — Claus and Wheeler say was valid.

“We were told that we had violated other rules, too, like that we had relatives living in the unit who weren’t permitted,” Wheeler said. “Those were our kids who came to visit for the holidays. That’s not them living there.”

Claus and Wheeler say in court filings that Ethan Browne took issue with pre-construction work being done by a surveyor they had hired to stake out the boundaries of their build site. They say he texted them, saying that their build plans were blocking an area he wanted to hike through. He eventually asked for further information on the couple’s building plans, according to court records.

The area with Wheeler and Claus' trailer
The area with Wheeler and Claus’ trailer just next to the build site. They hoped to live there while the build was in progress.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

On Feb. 2, 2019, Claus and Wheeler say in court filings that Miller, the Brownes’ property manager, began alleging that the couple had violated their rental agreement. They received an eviction notice from Miller through email four months after they moved in.

“We had some other living complaints, but we always paid rent on time, and we were fairly shocked that we were evicted,” said Claus. The couple sought legal counsel on the eviction through a UCSC legal-insurance benefit for employees called ARAG, which ultimately got the couple another month to vacate the unit.

They moved into a travel trailer set up on a nearby neighbor’s land down the road from their build site. But the move didn’t end the bad blood between the couple and Ethan Browne.

The couple say in court records that tensions between them and Ethan Browne continued to escalate when a brush-clearing crew they hired got a chipper stuck on the shared driveway in March 2019. Ethan Browne was not able to leave his property for several hours.

Court records show that the incident sparked a heated exchange between Wheeler and Ethan Browne, which the couple says ended with the two shaking hands and agreeing that the dispute was best settled in court.

The gated fence crosses the shared driveway.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

But the on-property disagreements didn’t end there. According to court records, the couple said that the Brownes built a fence in May 2019 that blocked access to their purchased land. In his court filings, Ethan Browne said the fence was built to keep both neighbors’ dogs away from the others’ property, and also to “make clear to Mr. Wheeler and Ms. Claus that they do not have the right to access our driveway, or to allow workers to do so.”

Two weeks after the fence went up in the spring of 2019, Claus and Wheeler filed their lawsuit against Jackson and Ethan Browne.

The couple say Ethan Browne left the property in late 2019. The house stayed empty for nearly two years until the current resident — one of Jackson Browne’s old roadies, according to Claus and Wheeler — moved in during the fall of 2021. They said that they have had no issues with the new resident, nor with any of their other neighbors.

Iser said Ethan Browne has not lived on the property for more than three years and has no plans to return. He did not disclose who is currently living on the property.

A resolution nears

In a Dec. 12 statement of decision — a preliminary ruling of sorts — the court found that the couple’s easement to access their property was, in fact, the paved driveway through Browne’s property. The court also found that the Brownes could not block access.

Additionally, Judge Timothy Volkmann ruled that Claus and Wheeler could not make certain modifications to the driveway — and that it will be up to local government officials to determine whether it is safe for the couple to begin construction on their home, as the driveway likely does not comply with some county and fire regulations.

A final ruling on the details in the judgment from the court is expected Monday, though Iser said Jackson Browne is still mulling the possibility of additional litigation because of the “plaintiffs’ apparent ongoing efforts to persuade the county to disregard the standards for fire access roads.”

Homebuilding plans in doubt

Depending on the outcome of the court decision this week, Claus and Wheeler say they hope to start construction on the home as soon as their building permit gets county approval, and if they can get a loan.

The couple won a title insurance settlement for the $300,000 purchase price of the property, though two-thirds of that went to the property’s previous owner, to whom the couple still owed money.

With more than $300,000 spent in legal fees, an estimated $200,000 in building permit costs, and faced with construction costs that have more than doubled in the years since they bought the land, the couple say they might need to downsize from their original plans.

They also worry they would not be able to financially survive an appeal by Browne, whom they believe has the means to afford a lengthy court battle.

(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

At one point, the couple even considered selling the land to the Brownes, but the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement.

Iser said Jackson Browne “reached out in good faith to settle the dispute with Wheeler and Claus, only to be rebuffed.” He said that Browne offered to purchase the property for “substantially more than they [Claus and Wheeler] paid for it, but they inexplicably refused this offer.” Wheeler said that during mediation, the Brownes offered as much as $500,000. He added that an appraiser the couple hired valued the land at $575,000.

Iser said that Browne also offered to contribute toward the costs of paving the unpaved path that leads to Claus and Wheeler’s building site, but that the two did not accept the proposal.

Those back-and-for offers are another point of contention.

The couple said they wouldn’t want to sell their land to the Brownes now anyway. “We would take a 10% market loss and sell it to somebody else,” added Wheeler.

More than four years after they first set foot on the idyllic Aptos property, Claus and Wheeler are still living in temporary accommodation. They have bounced around the area, staying in a neighbor’s trailer in Aptos at one point and housesitting for friends and coworkers.

They are staying at a friend’s condo in Rio Del Mar while she is out of the country on sabbatical and hope to move into a trailer set up on their property once the friend returns in June, following just about three years of nomadic living.

Despite everything, they hope that one day the land — and Santa Cruz County — will officially be their home. “We love the sense of community. It would be very hard for us to leave now. I love my job,” Claus said. “I don’t know where else we could afford to live.”

There is one final twist in this lengthy neighbor dispute: Wheeler used to be a Jackson Browne fan — he once even volunteered at a Jackson Browne benefit concert in Berkeley in the 1980s. “I think he’s very talented, and I used to like his music,” Wheeler said.

Now, he said, “I can’t listen to him anymore.”

FOR THE RECORD: The reporter for this story has a family member who works in the law firm representing Wheeler and Claus. He is not the attorney on this case, nor did the story come to Lookout through the firm.

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