The Kissel wars: Soap opera or tragedy?

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This story could have been the basis for an episode of “LA Law,” where so often tense drama intertwines with soap opera. Or it could be Greek tragedy, the tale of Pyrrhic victories, where everybody — residents, the company, city — loses.

The story could have been filmed in Paradise Cove, the locale of so many TV and film shoots, and the Malibu, Santa Monica and downtown Los Angeles courthouses.

“The Kissel Wars” would have dramatized The Kissel Company, Inc., owner of 74 acres in Paradise Cove, fighting concurrent battles with the city of Malibu over rent control; the Los Angeles County District Attorney over sewage spills in the mobilehome park, Malibu Creek and the ocean; and coach owners over responsibility for maintaining the mobilehome park.

A crisis date is March 19, when the company and the district attorney start the 10-day countdown to a trial over 45 counts of alleged environmental crimes. If the company loses this criminal misdemeanor action, said Deputy District Attorney Rob Miller, the worst that could happen to Kissel would be paying a fine of $82,000 for the first complaint (which cites 1997 violations) and $20,000 for the second complaint (1998 violations).

Some of the story lines might be:

  • Will the company and coach owners be on the road to a settlement before March 19? Steve Kunes, Paradise Cove Homeowner Association president, and Steven Dahlberg, Kissel chief financial officer, have been corresponding since Thanksgiving about getting a majority of coach owners to accept a “pass through” charge for a new $1.5 million septic system.
  • If there is any kind of compromise, could the company be trusted to honor its part? In an Oct. 31, 1998 letter to coach owners and a Jan. 18, 1999 letter to Dahlberg, Kunes claims the company reneged on a plea bargain with the district attorney. In a Nov. 17, 1998 letter to Kunes, Dahlberg says no plea bargain was ever negotiated, and, “Regardless of the outcome of the criminal trial, the replacement of the septic system is the financial responsibility of the residents.”
  • If Kissel loses the criminal case, will it also lose big-time in the coach owners’ suit against it? According to court records, the company’s cross-complaint in the civil case was dismissed without leave to amend, and a status conference is set for April 6. James Semelsberger, a lawyer representing the coach owners, said if Kissel is found liable in the criminal case, it will speed up resolution of the civil case. Since the civil case plaintiffs, the homeowners, are “standing in the same shoes as the district attorney does, the court finding Kissel liable for violating environmental law would be held as a finding of liability in the civil case.”

“I don’t know if the Kissel Company is getting bad advice, or it’s just the way they are,” Semelsberger added. “Instead of fixing the septic system, they just want to keep fighting.”

  • How long will it take and how much more money will the city have to pay to fight Kissel’s latest lawsuit against it? Last August, Kissel filed its fourth action against the city. The Petition for Writ of Mandamus asks the state court to direct the city to grant the company the rent increase denied it last spring or make the city have another hearing where only Kissel’s application, and not the city’s staff reports against it, are considered. Civil cases often take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to resolve.