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Date: February 24, 2003
For Immediate Release

Contact: Bill Mayfield
City Attorney's Office
(650) 329-2171

Judge Rules in Juana Briones Case

Palo Alto, CA -- Superior Court Judge John F. Herlihy has ordered the owners of the historic Juana Briones House in Palo Alto to complete earthquake repairs and restorations required by their contract with the City of Palo Alto.

In a decision issued on February 21, 2003, the City's contract under the California historic preservation statute known as the Mills Act was found to be valid and binding on the current owners of the property, which is located at 4155 Old Adobe Road. Under the Mills Act, reduced property tax valuation is available in exchange for preservation agreements for historic structures.

In 1988, the City of Palo Alto and former owner Susan Berthiaume contracted for preservation under the Mills Act, but in the following year the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989 damaged the adobe walls central to the building. A later property owner, Dr. Daniel Meub, made illegal alterations to the Craftsman style wings which seriously compromised their historic integrity, and in 1996 the Palo Alto Building Official banned occupancy because of its deterioration and unpermitted alterations. Since acquiring the property in 1997, the current owners (Jaim Nulman and Avelyn Welczer) had left the home in a deteriorated condition and ultimately sued the City to allow them to demolish it. Palo Alto countersued to enforce the historic preservation duties under the Mills Act Contract.

Several attempts were made during the litigation to resolve the dispute, first through moving the structure to some nearby location where it could be preserved in public ownership and later by outright sale to a historic preservation foundation. After all these solutions failed, the case was submitted to Judge Herlihy after a week long trial in November 2002 and extensive post-trial briefing through January 2003.

The Mills Act Contract requires historic preservation and public tour access through October 2007, when the contract will expire. The ultimate fate of the Juana Briones House therefore remains undecided by the litigation, but the court ruling removes any doubt that the Mills Act Contract must be adhered to and cannot be avoided by demolition or through destruction by neglect.

Juana Briones House

Juana Briones, for whom the Juana Briones Elementary School is named, was an important figure in early California history known for her independence and prominence in the small settlement of Yerba Buena (now the North Beach area of San Francisco). She was married to a military officer attached to the Presidio, but after their separation she acquired almost 8,000 acres off Arastradero Road and built the Juana Briones House there in about 1850. The central core of three small rooms was built from an unusual type of adobe known as "rammed earth," with clay almost a foot thick rammed between a wooden framing and then coated after the 1906 earthquake with concrete to protect it from weathering. Craftsman style wings and a second story were added in 1908, and the house passed into the family of the noted artist Marjorie Eaton during the early 20th Century.

 

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