Residents in Malibu’s Winding Way/Murphy Way neighborhood receive “encroachment” letters from MRCA

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The letter from the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority claims to have the right to pursue legal action and fines against residents who are “encroaching” on its easement, leading to concern among homeowners in the area.

Several residents in Malibu’s Winding Way/Murphy Way neighborhood have received letters from the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority (MRCA) regarding “encroachments.” The MRCA claims to have an easement on Winding Way that gives it the right to pursue legal action and fines to residents along the road that are “encroaching” on that easement. 

Encroachment in real estate is defined as one property owner violating their neighbor’s rights by crossing over their property line with such things as a fence, structural addition, overgrown garden, tree branch or hedge; curb, gutter, culvert, sidewalk, underground utility, above-ground utility, mailbox, or sidewalk.

Mike Gatto, attorney and partner at Actium LLP, did not confirm or deny to The Malibu Times that he was representing homeowners in the Winding Way/Murphy Way neighborhood, but he has studied the matter.

“We’ve identified several legal defects in the [MRCA’s] claimed easement, which we believe means that the Conservancy does not have a valid easement to begin with,” he wrote to The Malibu Times. “As far as I can tell, the MRCA has given different deadlines to different homeowners. It’s not much time to respond, especially for those who are out of town.”

“I was made aware of one incident where MRCA allegedly showed up to a house with a law enforcement officer and allegedly removed a variety of items and fixtures,” Gatto continued. “I respectfully question the wisdom of such moves. Generally, before taking such extreme actions, a government agency must hold a hearing to meet Due Process requirements and/or obtain a warrant, or the agency and the employees who participate in such actions face huge liability. I don’t think it’s a good look for a government agency to be doing that in the manner it was allegedly done.”

Ellen Kaufman Wolf, an attorney with Wolf Wallenstein, PC, represents the Ramirez Canyon Preservation Fund and several clients in Ramirez Canyon — another Malibu neighborhood fighting the MRCA’s moves.

Wolf is familiar with what is now happening in the Winding Way/Murphy Way neighborhood, and commented to The Malibu Times that, “They should not do that, but MRCA has been known to do things I would think they shouldn’t. Some people think that MRCA is sending these notices out to, in essence, bully and intimidate the homeowners, make them spend legal dollars, and weaken the homeowners’ resolve for fighting the next battle with MRCA.”

She suggested that any homeowner being affected by MRCA’s latest actions should seek counsel to “have the [easement] documents carefully reviewed.”

She pointed out that, “There can be various defenses in easement right cases, such as technical defects, misuse, overburdening, abandonment over time, etc. Language of easements is very specific and the facts of each ‘encroachment’ are different.”   

Gatto wrote that, “Without providing legal advice: homeowners have a variety of options, including clarifying in court any allegations that cloud their title and seeking redress if people trespass … But the best thing everyone can do is understand their rights, and then engage in negotiations. I favor a world where government works with the residents it serves, not against them.”

“We’ve also gently suggested that government agencies should follow the age-old wisdom from Proverbs, ‘A soft word turneth away wrath, but harshness stirs up anger,’” Gatto continued. “Many of my friends in government have opined that a government agency should never send out letters like that, straight out of the gate.”

Rick Mullen, president of Ramírez Canyon Preservation Fund, and fire captain and former mayor of the City of Malibu, stated that, in his opinion, “Perhaps MRCA’s methods should be investigated. Why does MRCA focus so much on trail rights through neighborhood streets and camping rights that would undoubtedly create more fire, traffic, and safety hazards in populated areas? Assuring safe and sound public access to beautiful places around Malibu could be better accomplished in open space areas, with well-supervised facilities that do not threaten the health and safety of people — whether from Malibu or outside Malibu — and which do not result in the waste of substantial amounts of public funds (including taxpayer money) spent to litigate easements and land use violations that directly impact residential neighborhoods.”

Publisher’s Note: On Sunday, March 12, this article was updated to reflect that the MRCA’s representatives were not contacted at the time of the original publication on Thursday. The Malibu Times plans to reach out to the MRCA and will provide a follow-up article with additional information as it becomes available.