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Neighbors Mount Flurry of Suits in Bid to Force Out Homeowner : Activism: In small claims court, 24 residents seek $5,000 each from woman they say has caused them emotional distress with piles of rubbish and nighttime noise. Woman denies the allegations and says her house has been cleaned.

August 02, 1994|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTMINISTER — Two dozen Huntington Harbour residents angry about the condition of a neighbor's property took her to small claims court Monday, using a novel technique in an effort to force her out or make her clean up her property.

The neighbors are relying on a tactic called Safe Streets Now! pioneered by San Francisco Bay Area residents to force evictions of drug-selling tenants by winning large judgments against the landlords in court.

Each of the 24 residents is seeking a $5,000 judgment, the maximum obtainable in small claims court, in hopes that the combined sum will either force Elena Zagustin to clean up her property or move.

Residents from the upscale enclave approached the bench one after another Monday and said that Zagustin has caused them emotional distress by keeping piles of rubbish in and around her house, making noises in the night, abusing her cats and contributing to an unbearable stench and rat and possum infestations in the neighborhood.

"I've had recurring nightmares because of the fire hazard. I've spent countless sleepless nights listening to her bang around in her trash cans," Raymond Goulette told Judge Corey S. Cramin.

Residents presented a 380-page file subpoenaed from the Huntington Beach code enforcement office, outlining actions the city has taken against Zagustin over the years, including 21 inspections of her property, four criminal complaints and a Superior Court civil lawsuit by the city that was settled.

Zagustin sought unsuccessfully to have the cases dismissed Monday, saying she had not been served with court papers. She then sought to have the cases transferred to Superior Court because the total claims amount to $120,000. The judge denied both requests.

She denied many of her neighbors' allegations and said she has cleaned up her house in accordance with last month's court settlement.

"I'm not bothering anybody. All I do is work and come home," Zagustin said outside court. "My house is cleaned up."

Zagustin, 57, a tenured engineering professor for 27 years, is on medical leave from Cal State Long Beach.

After listening to four hours of testimony from neighbors, Cramin took a tour of the neighborhood Monday, peeking over a fence into Zagustin's yard, surrounded by immaculately landscaped $400,000 houses.

The judge's ruling will be announced today, his clerk said. He ruled in favor of some plaintiffs but not all, she said.

Monday's case has emerged as a key test of the Safe Streets Now! technique in Orange County. It was first used by Oakland resident Molly Wetzel in 1989 when she rallied her neighbors to sue a neighboring landlord whose tenants allegedly sold crack cocaine. Wetzel has helped Bay Area residents pull in more than $760,000 in judgments since then, and activist Betsy Bredau has headed a similar effort in Long Beach.

Officials and frustrated residents in Orange County cities plagued by drug-dealing are researching use of the method and say a success for Huntington Harbour residents would be inspirational.

"If this is successful then it clearly shows that citizens can take the law into their own hands and win. This is America. This is wonderful!" said Santa Ana neighborhood activist Jim Walker, who attended a Safe Streets Now! training session in January and has been supporting the Huntington Harbour efforts.

"It shows how due process can work for the people, not against them. We have to reassure people that the system works."

David Flynn, the Huntington Harbour resident who spearheaded the small claims action, said he and his neighbors will continue to refile claims against Zagustin until her home is maintained to their satisfaction or they force her out.

"She can't live here anymore and keep harassing people without getting harassment back," he said.

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