Plot of Contention

Article excerpt

Byline: DEVELOPMENT By Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

A legal skirmish on a hilltop in southwest Eugene has pitted well-to-do homeowners against a developer of multi-million dollar mansions.

The 1 1/2 -year-old battle over the development of a 10-acre pasture along Hawkins Lane has been fought through the city's land use process, a circuit court hearing and mediation - and onto the Oregon Court of Appeals.

The developer wants to subdivide the pasture for up to 35 houses. But neighbors say homeowners association rules allow him to build no more than one house.

Lawyers fees in the dispute broke the $100,000 mark and are likely to go higher in what one neighbor laments as a war of attrition waged through the courts.

"This is a soap opera, really," the developer, Dan Cooper, said.

Cooper says he won't give up. "We're going to continue down this road and we're going to fight it to the end," he said.

And neighbors in the Hawkins View subdivision are "prepared to go the distance," said attorney Jeff Salisbury, who lives near the disputed pasture and who's representing the neighborhood association.

The pasture is in the Hawkins View subdivision, which was created in the mid-1990s and consists of 115 new homes, the last of which were completed in recent years.

The disputed pasture and house make up the original homestead, out of which the rest of the subdivision was carved. The grassy acreage, surrounded by a white three-rail fence, is adjacent to a five acre city park - allowing views for adjacent homeowners of an expansive plain of green.

Dan Cooper bought the land in fall 2007 for about $1.4 million. His initial plan was to build 65 houses. Then he cut that to 35. Lately, he's offered to scale back to 27, if neighbors agree to settle.

The land is zoned and designated for single family housing. Cooper obtained tentative city approval for the 35-lot subdivision. Usually, at that point, he would have a clear path to development.

But the Hawkins View Architectural Control Committee, which is elected to represent the neighborhood, asserts that Cooper can't put his subdivision on the 10 acres.

The committee maintains that the subdivison's homeowner rules, known as "covenants, conditions and restrictions" allow only one home on each lot - and the old homestead parcel, in their view, is one lot. The rules - known as CC&Rs - say: "No improvement shall be erected or permitted to remain on any Lot except for Improvements consisting or of containing one Residential Unit and Improvements normally accessory thereto."

In order to buy property in the Hawkins View subdivision, each buyer must sign an agreement to follow the homeowner rules.

Cooper contends that he'll gladly abide by the one home per one lot rule - just after he subdivides the 10 acres into however many lots he settles on.

Salisbury, who represents the neighborhood of $400,000 to $900,000 homes in court, said the only way for Cooper to legally develop the property is to amend the subdivision rules - and that's accomplished by winning the agreement of 85 percent of homeowners.

The Architecture Control Committee is doing its job by defending the rules, Salisbury said. "If they don't do that, they could be shirking their responsibility," he said.

Would the homeowners ever agree with Cooper's plans?

"It really would be speculative of me to conjecture how a vote would shake out if he pursued his proper remedies and solicited a vote," Salisbury said.

Crowding, light pollution

Dozens of homeowners signed petitions to stop Cooper's plans during the city's subdivision approval process. Salisbury and his wife Denise, who's a member of the control committee, are opposed.

"It would be an aesthetic detriment," he said. "The neighborhood would feel more crowded. There would be a lot of light pollution at night. …