TORRANCE — In December, 1984, Clark Garen, an attorney and pilot, gave 20,000 households a Christmas surprise with a pair of lawsuits that threatened to raze their homes for complaining about noise at Torrance Municipal Airport.
In the next few weeks, 25 of those households will receive from Garen's insurance company late Christmas gifts of $3,400 each as part of a $202,000 court settlement for "harassing" the homeowners with what a judge called Garen's "fraudulent and un-meritorious" suits.
"Apparently our judicial system works, even in the face of what seemed to be an outlandish and ridiculous suit," said Peter Lacombe, a Torrance attorney who represented the homeowners.
Garen no longer lives in Torrance and could not be reached for comment.
In seeking to have the homes razed, Garen's suits cited a portion of the 1948 deed that transferred the airport--which was a World War II Army Air Corps facility--from the federal government to the city. The deed prohibits the city from allowing land near the airport to be developed in a manner that would limit the airport's "usefulness."
Usefulness Clause Cited
One of Garen's suits, against the city, claimed that Torrance had violated the "usefulness" clause and asked the court to force the city to condemn the homes of residents who complained about airport noise, rescind all noise-related regulations and transfer control of the airport back to the federal government.
The other suit, against the homeowners, said they had "induced" city officials to impose noise regulations by making campaign contributions, appearing at City Council meetings and working on political campaigns for council members.
Last April, U.S. District Judge James M. Ideman dismissed the suits, calling them "fraudulent and unmeritorious." Ideman ordered Garen to pay $100,000 in legal fees and a $250,000 sanction, saying that the suits were "particularly cruel and threatened and intimidated homeowners into a real fear of losing their homes." He said he wanted the sanction to be "meaningful" because Garen had used his power as an attorney to "harass" the homeowners.
Garen said he was broke and could not pay the penalty. The court ordered an investigation into Garen's finances, but Torrance City Atty. Stanley Remelmeyer said that rather than go after Garen's assets, the city and the residents decided to accept the $202,000 settlement offered by Garen's insurance company.
The court approved the settlement Jan. 26, and the 25 households that Lacombe represented will receive their payments within the next few weeks, Lacombe said. It is not known exactly how many residents were served with legal papers, but only 25 came forward to be represented by Lacombe and they are the only ones eligible to share in the settlement.
The settlement also provides legal fees for the city of Torrance ($58,000), Lacombe ($28,000), Ticor Title Insurance Co. ($21,000) and the cities of Santa Monica ($3,900) and Lomita ($6,100), which filed legal briefs supporting Torrance.
Meanwhile, several of the homeowners said they are pleased that the suit is finally settled and that they have a small windfall for their troubles.
Frank Schilling, 59, a machine shop owner who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 1984, was the only defendant named in Garen's suit. Garen never explained why he singled out Schilling, but Schilling said he thought it was because of his brief fame as a council candidate.
"It looked pretty serious for a while," said Schilling, who lives about half a mile from the western end of the airport's runway. "I'm just thankful that it's over."
Schilling said he will probably use his money for home improvements.
To Pay for Arkansas Trip
Reba Rhodes said her share of the money will be used to pay for her trip last weekend to Arkansas to celebrate her grandmother's 100th birthday.
Rhodes said the suit frightened her family for a few weeks, but after discussing it with Lacombe and Remelmeyer, she said she felt confident they would not lose their home.
"Still, we would rather this not have happened," she said.
John Van Deusen said the thought of losing his home was always in the back of his mind the first few weeks of the suit. He said he spent about $100 to secure an attorney before Lacombe stepped in to represent the residents at no charge to them.
"My wife took it pretty hard," Van Deusen said. "She really thought we might lose the house.
"We're just happy it's over."