The complaint filed on Thursday comes at a bad time for District 5 candidate Eric Michielssen — just days before the June 7 primary election. Michielssen said Tuesday the lawsuit, which was filed by a well-known Arnold ally, is a thinly veiled attempt to cost him votes.
On Thursday, attorneys for Santa Margarita residents John Philbrick and Diane Allen filed a civil complaint in San Luis Obispo Superior Court against Michielssen and wife Dana Tryde, alleging the two were failing to recognize a long-existing easement on their property that allowed Philbrick, a cattle rancher and hay farmer, access to his property with large equipment.
According to the lawsuit, Philbrick leases a 360-acre ranch at 1760 Parkhill Road in Santa Margarita and Michielssen moved into an adjacent 7.5-acre parcel in 2009.
The lawsuit alleges that Michielssen was aware that a 30-foot right-of-way on his property was a historic easement that Philbrick can legally use.
However, when Michielssen began building his house on the property in 2009, the house began encroaching on the easement and, with wood piles and other materials, blocked Philbrick’s access, according to the lawsuit.
Philbrick claims the 1923 deed to the property he leases contains a “scrivener’s error,” a typo that misidentifies the precise location of the easement. Philbrick says a 1982 parcel map correctly identifies the error.
Furthermore, the lawsuit alleges that Michielssen’s adult son trespassed on a hill on his property to “watch the sunset,” and Philbrick denied requests from Michielssen and Tryde to ride horses on Philbrick’s property.
Lawsuits only represent one side of the argument, and Michielssen has not yet filed a response in court.
Philbrick’s attorney, Sophie Treder, said Tuesday the issue has been years in the making and that friendly neighbor discussions had recently gone sour. She said Philbreck first consulted with her about the easement in 2012.
Treder provided The Tribune with email correspondence between Philbrick and Michielssen dating back to July. Michielssen stated in a May 6 email to Philbrick that it was his title company’s opinion that there was no easement but reiterated that Philbrick could use it, anyway.
Treder said she was driven to file the lawsuit last week due to a written correspondence she said Michielssen recently sent Philbrick denying Philbrick’s right to the property, which meant that her client’s access could be cut off at any time. She said Philbrick was also motivated by the hay season, when he needs to use the easement to transport his cut hay before it begins to mold.
“This has been a slow progression,” Treder said.
But Michielssen said the timing of the suit speaks for itself.
Treder has donated money to Arnold’s current and previous campaigns. She’s also represented the applicants for the controversial Las Pilitas gravel quarry proposed about 3 miles northeast of Santa Margarita. After years of planning and public comment, the project was narrowly defeated on appeal to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.
Arnold and District 4 Supervisor Lynn Compton voted in support of the project. Michielssen has said he would have opposed the quarry if he had been on the board at the time of the vote.
“We knew what people were going to say, that it’s political, but from a legal standpoint I’m doing what I need to do to protect the interests of my client,” Treder said. “We’re not going to just dismiss (the lawsuit) after the election.”
Treder, a Santa Margarita resident, said she has known Philbrick for more than seven years and provided him counsel prior to Michielssen’s announcement that he would run against Arnold.
In hindsight, she said, she would not have represented Philbrick in the lawsuit if she had known Michielssen would enter the race against Arnold.
“Yes, I know Debbie. And yes, I’m friends with Debbie,” Treder said. “I’ve also been friends with John Philbrick even longer.”
She added that she had tried but was unsuccessful in finding another attorney willing to take the case in light of Michielssen’s candidacy.
Michielssen said Tuesday he had not yet been served with the lawsuit but had read a portion of it in an online article published the same day the lawsuit was filed, before the lawsuit was publicly available at the courthouse.
Even though he had not yet read the entire lawsuit, he denied the allegations, saying he has never denied Philbrick access to the easement and called the litigation “smear tactics at the last minute.”
“It’s just a ploy. I don’t think you can look at it any other way,” Michielssen said, adding that the lawsuit, on its face, makes it sound as if Michielssen is anti-property rights.
He said Philbrick did not tell him of his plans to file the lawsuit, and that as recently as over the Memorial Day weekend, Philbrick used the easement for between 20 and 30 hay truck trips.
“I always told John, I said you can always use it. I don’t have a problem with it,” Michielssen said, adding that the dispute between the two intensified when Philbrick insisted he has rights to the easement, using the 1923 deed as proof. He said he consulted with his title company, who agreed the dirt road is his property.
Michielssen also denied the trespassing allegation, saying his son hiked on another neighboring property also used by others in the area.
Michielssen said he is waiting to receive the lawsuit, but questioned why he had yet to be served with the document if the matter was time-sensitive. “If it’s such a big deal, why don’t they serve us already?” he said.
He said he will file a response to the lawsuit after the election.
A case management conference is scheduled for Sept. 28 in the Paso Robles courthouse.