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Neighbors Win Big in Small-Claims Case : Court: San Clemente residents fed up with tenants' drug-dealing granted $76,000 when landlord loses appeal.


SAN CLEMENTE — A group of Avenida Cadiz homeowners who collectively said "No" have won a $76,000 judgment from an absentee landlord whose tenants were dealing drugs in their neighborhood.

After nine months of crime and drug traffic at a rented house on their quiet street in southwest San Clemente, 29 residents banded together and took the homeowner to small-claims court last June. Their victory, upheld on appeal, handed down by Orange County Superior Court Referee Greer H. Stroud, was announced this week.

"Yes, there is such a thing as a good neighborhood," said Suzy Wolfer, who lives with her husband, Joel, and their three children across the street from the former drug house. "It feels really good. Sometimes it seems like you don't have any power over anything, but this shows we can take care of our street."

It was the first group of residents in Orange County to use small-claims court under the Safe Streets Now program to win a judgment against a landlord, according to Jim Walker, a Santa Ana community activist and supporter of the statewide program.

The small-claims court has a $5,000 award limit per person, but because they sued jointly, the neighbors were able to get a combined sum, said attorney Nelson L. Cohen, who represented them when their small-claims judgment was appealed to Superior Court. The small-claims court granted each member of the group $5,000 each--$145,000--but, on appeal, Stroud lowered the judgment to $76,000, a sum the neighbors still believe represents a significant victory, they said.

"It's an important victory because it shows people can band together in order to safeguard their neighborhood," Cohen said. "The word is getting out that people can do something about slumlords or nuisances in their neighborhoods."

The property owner, Joanette Lewis of Rancho Palos Verdes, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Her attorney, James E. Mahfood of Santa Ana, did not return phone calls to his office.

According to court documents, Lewis maintained that she was unaware of most of the neighbors' concerns and she quickly fixed all the problems that were brought to her attention and ultimately evicted the tenants who were creating the problems.

For years, Avenida Cadiz, a cozy cluster of houses that are valued in the $250,000-$350,000 range primarily because of their proximity to the beach, was home to a close-knit group of families and children who enjoyed the camaraderie of such things as block parties, the residents said.

But starting in August, 1993, the tenants at 135 Avenida Cadiz brought a new, unwelcome element that disrupted the comfortable neighborhood, they said in court testimony and interviews.

Besides the home being poorly kept up, neighbors said there was constant traffic by foot, bicycle and car--up to 90 cars were logged in one brief period--going to and from the house. Numerous search warrants were served on the property and police raided the house twice with guns drawn and once broke down the front door, the neighbors said.

Finally, Wolfer and her neighbors decided to do something about it.

"We started working like Sherlock Holmes, writing down license plate numbers and recording everything," said Wolfer, who has lived in the neighborhood about eight years. "We kept calling the police and they encouraged us to keep calling and letting them know what was going on."

According to court documents, "135 Avenida Cadiz was known in the neighborhood and to drug enforcement authorities as a 'drug house.' It was, in fact, according to the testimony of Officer Diane Russell, the one house in San Clemente designated as a known 'active drug house.' " The neighbors employed the strategy pioneered to oust drug dealers in Oakland by a group called Safe Streets Now.

The San Clemente group originally won a judgment last summer--the county's first--which was ultimately upheld after it was appealed by the landlord, Cohen said.

The court awarded the neighbors' claim for mental and emotional stress caused by the nuisances in the rented house, which police described in court testimony as one of the worst problems in the city.

"It was a very tense time," said Marilyn Coduti, another Avenida Cadiz homeowner who led the fight for the neighborhood. "I have lived here for nine years and had never seen the police until these people moved in. All of a sudden the police were here all the time."

In addition to the $76,000, the court also gave the neighbors $5,075 for attorneys' fees and costs accumulated during the appeal.

Walker said if people knew they could take such action in small-claims court, "a lot of the grief and crime could be reduced and we could help inoculate Orange County from the wave of crack houses that is coming down here from Los Angeles.

"No longer do property owners have to fear being prisoners in their own home," he said.

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