Meghdadi goes to court

Developer accused of cutting too many trees files legal writ against city of Chico

STILL STANDING <br>Developer Andrew Meghdadi says he is ready to tell his side of the story in the case of the felled oak trees, but the city won’t schedule a public hearing. That silence, he contends, has allowed public anger directed toward him to fester. Here he is seen on his Terra Bella subdivision property, where he took down 117 trees in March.

Developer Andrew Meghdadi says he is ready to tell his side of the story in the case of the felled oak trees, but the city won’t schedule a public hearing. That silence, he contends, has allowed public anger directed toward him to fester. Here he is seen on his Terra Bella subdivision property, where he took down 117 trees in March.

Photo by Tom Angel

Time is money: Andy Meghdadi estimates that the combination of shutting down his project as ordered by the city, thus delaying its progress, the price of a supplemental environmental-impact report and the legal fees to fight the city could well run him in excess of $1 million.

Andy Meghdadi, the developer accused of cutting too many trees on his housing subdivision in southeast Chico, filed a legal action in Butte County Superior Court this week asking a judge to re-examine the Chico City Council’s actions against him.

A few months back Meghdadi became the man whom seemingly everybody in Chico wanted to see tarred, feathered and run out of town. The silver-haired developer, according to the Chico city planning staff, cut down 84 more trees on his Terra Bella subdivision than the planning department said he could, including several heritage oaks.

The tree removal began and ended on March 19, after it was brought to the attention of the city by a number of calls from the project’s neighbors. Two weeks later, on April 2, Meghdadi stood before the council and a rip-roaringly angry group of citizens caught up in a tidal wave of emotion. Meghdadi, who had just returned from a vacation in Florida, and his attorney Bill Ward, who was brought on two days before the meeting, told the council they needed more time to respond to the charges and were given 45 days to so.

However, that same night the council took action to continue a cease-and-desist order on the project and told Meghdadi do a “supplemental” environmental-impact report (cost: $50,000), which would come complete with a new round of public hearings and project conditions. The council also called for an investigation into allegations that Meghdadi operates without a business license, called for a letter from the mayor to the state Contractors Board looking into possible suspension of Meghdadi’s contractor’s license, and suggested special attention be placed on all future Meghdadi projects.

In the wake of the April 2 meeting, Meghdadi hired attorney William R. Warne, of the Sacramento law firm Downey Brand Seymour & Rohwer. Warne says that, despite numerous requests, the city has yet to schedule a meeting so the council and the public can hear his client’s side of the story.

“All we are asking for is a chance to explain to the public and the city, and the court if necessary, Mr. Meghdadi’s side of the story,” Warne said this week.

What he’s filed in legal terms is called a petition for an alternate writ of mandate, which he describes as a “legal mechanism available to citizens when they believe [a governmental entity], in this case the city, has made a decision that is unlawful. The writ allows them to seek help from the court.”

In this case, Warne says, the City Council issued its punishment without allowing Meghdadi to give his side. Now, 89 days later, there is still no such meeting in sight. The city says it is still waiting for a written explanation from Meghdadi, as he was instructed to provide at the April 2 meeting.

Warne says he and Meghdadi turned over a binder of documents with relevant passages highlighted on May 30 to Planning Director Kim Seidler, Senior Planner Patrick Murphy and City Attorney David Frank.

“We think those documents are highly supportive of Mr. Meghdadi’s position [that he did not violate the Planning Department’s conditions of approval],” Warne said this week.

On June 3 Warne sent a letter to Seidler thanking him for the May 30 meeting and requesting the planning director’s attention in getting the matter on a City Council meeting agenda “so that the City Council and the public are given a chance to hear Mr. Meghdadi’s side of the story.”

In a subsequent conversation, Warne said, Seidler told him the City Council was busy with budget concerns and that a hearing for Meghdadi couldn’t occur until July at the earliest.

At a June 18 council meeting, City Manager Tom Lando told the council that the city was still waiting to receive a written explanation from Meghdadi before a public hearing could be scheduled.

On June 21 Warne wrote a letter to Lando again asking for a hearing and noting “at no time did Mr. Seidler ever state that we had to make a written submission before we could address the City Council. In fact, such a request would have been odd, since in our meeting with Mr. Seidler, Mr. Frank and Mr. Murphy on May 30th, we presented them with a binder of documents supporting Mr. Meghdadi’s position, and fully explained our case.”

He ends the letter by calling it a “formal objection to the manner in which the City has handled our request to present Mr. Meghdadi’s side of the story.”

Seidler acknowledges that material has been handed over but says the planning staff needs time to analyze it so it can respond accordingly.

With the filing of the writ, a judge may either side with the city, in which case a lawsuit from Meghdadi will likely follow, or rule that the city must rescind its April 2 actions or, as is most likely, say more time is needed to study the issue and instruct the city to reexamine its course of action in the matter.

“We’re attacking the procedures, is what we are doing.” Warne said of the filing. “[The City Council] decided the tree cutting was unauthorized, [but] without a hearing. [Meghdadi] has a right to make his case, but the City Council never heard it.”

The filed motion claims city actions have damaged Meghdadi’s reputation in the community and cites a June 23 letter to the editor that appeared in the Chico Enterprise-Record that says Meghdadi “deserves more than the maximum legal punishment” and that consumers “should refuse to purchase [Meghdadi’s] houses” and “boycott his developments.”

The motion also says that Meghdadi tried to meet with the planning staff March 14 to make sure he was in compliance with city requirements. He went to the Planning Department counter and asked to meet with Seidler, according to the filed document. Instead Murphy came out, and Meghdadi asked if he would like to see his tree removal map.

The document says Murphy said “no.” When the developer asked if someone from the city needed to be present for the cutting, Murphy, according to the document, again said “no.”

“At this point, Meghdadi reasonably believed that he had done all required of him by [the city] to obtain their approval of the tree removal,” the document states.

As for the number of trees ultimately removed, the document says arborist Meg Burgin’s tree survey indicated that, of the 179 oak trees on the property, 94 were in “poor” condition, 36 in “severe decline” and two were dead.

The document goes on to say that a Nov. 8, 2001, meeting between Meghdadi and his engineer and city staff “developed an understanding” that 141 trees could be removed from the property

The file also includes the copy of an e-mail from Murphy to Meghdadi’s engineer sent March 18 that reads: “[Y]ou are correct in that I did tell Andrew and his arborist that they can proceed with the cutting … provided it all conforms with the various mitigation measures, conditions, etc. I’m crossing my fingers that they do it correctly.”

Meghdadi says he thinks the city is stalling and for some reason does not want his side of the story to be made public, even after the story was splashed across the front pages of the Enterprise-Record nearly every day for a few weeks in March and April.

“Any person with good faith and a reasonable intelligence is going to have real questions about the city’s intentions,” Warne said.

And with all the negative publicity that’s attended the story, Meghdadi said, he and his attorney may request that an out-of-county judge consider the case.