Judge rules mainly against Jackson Browne in Aptos property dispute

The Santa Cruz County Courthouse
(Patrick Riley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Judge Timothy Volkmann issued his statement of decision on the Jackson Browne property dispute Monday, mostly siding with the plaintiffs. Each side has the chance to object and try to convince Volkmann to change his mind.

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A Santa Cruz Superior Court judge has largely sided with two Aptos residents trying to build a house next to famed singer-songwriter Jackson Browne in a pivotal court decision that brings the three-year legal battle closer to an end.

On Monday, Judge Timothy Volkmann issued his statement of decision, essentially determining that plaintiffs Christopher Wheeler and Sarah Claus can use Browne’s driveway to access land they own in order to build a house. The court concluded that:

  • An easement location at the heart of the dispute is, in fact, the existing paved driveway and not a logging trail as argued by Browne’s attorneys.
  • The Brownes may not block the usage of the driveway.
  • The presence of construction vehicles and equipment during the building stage is “not a legally viable basis for a finding of nuisance.”

Volkmann did, however, agree with Browne’s counsel that Wheeler and Claus cannot alter or modify the driveway to comply with some county and fire regulations — a point Browne’s lawyers used to claim that the house project should not move forward at all. The statement of decision says the plaintiffs did not seem to disagree that the driveway does not comply with those regulations.

However, the court also agreed with the plaintiffs that it’s up to the planning department, fire department and other county agencies to determine whether the construction can proceed.

The civil case centers on whether construction vehicles can use Browne’s driveway to access land owned by Wheeler and Claus in order to build a house. The driveway is Wheeler and Claus’ only entry point to their property, which sits adjacent to Browne’s on Porter Gulch Road in Aptos.

Browne’s argument is that the driveway is not within the property’s easements, so Wheeler and Claus do not have the right to use it. His attorneys argued that the easement includes a smaller logging trail rather than the existing paved driveway.

This statement of decision is only tentative for now, as both sides have the opportunity to object and attempt to convince Volkmann to reconsider. That process could take 30 days or longer.

Browne’s attorney, Larry Iser, said that while he and his colleagues are still studying the tentative statement of decision, they are “pleased and gratified that the court found in favor of Mr. Browne on the two central issues of the case: that the Browne driveway does not comply with current Central Fire access requirements, and that Dr. Wheeler and Ms. Claus do not have the right to modify the driveway to bring it into compliance without Browne’s consent.”

Wheeler and Claus also said they were happy with the decision.

“As I see it, our argument won on all fronts,” Claus told Lookout. “The case is still in progress, but it is a win for us for sure and a big one. We await their response.”


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