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Trump sues city for $100 million

Mogul says Rancho Palos Verdes tries to 'stymie everything I do.' Opponents say he just doesn't like rules.

December 20, 2008|Victoria Kim

When Donald Trump came to Rancho Palos Verdes six years ago with plans for a world-class golf course, he was welcomed with open arms. Then came the dispute with the city over his plan to name a street after himself. And then came the battle with neighbors over his 12-foot-tall ficus trees.

Now the mogul is suing the small town, and suing big. He wants $100 million from a city with an annual budget just shy of $20 million.

In a lawsuit filed this week, Trump accused the city of fraud and civil rights violations, contending that the city was refusing to allow improvements needed to maintain the "Trump image," including a clubhouse terrace and a row of ficus trees he was forced to cut down earlier.

"I've been looking forward for a long time to do this," Trump said of the lawsuit Friday in a phone interview from New York. "The town does everything possible to stymie everything I do."

But city leaders and some residents said the lawsuit was just another attempt by the real estate mogul to bully the community and avoid playing by the rules. They call it the culmination of his history of run-ins with officials from the upscale, picturesque city of nearly 46,000 set amid the coves and beaches of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

The city's mayor, Larry Clark, dismissed the charges and said the lawsuit may cause residents' already simmering ill will toward the developer to explode.

"We have bent over backwards many, many times to work with Donald Trump," said Clark, who said he had spoken with Trump about the lawsuit. "I'm sure this lawsuit is really going to anger a lot of the residents."

Among the angered citizens is 68-year-old Jo Ann Michetti, who e-mailed a city councilman Friday urging him to "please continue not to give in to this bully."

"I think he just feels rules aren't made for him," said Michetti, a retired liability investigator who has lived in the city since 1971. "He expects them to say he can do it because he's Donald Trump."

Trump's relationship with residents did not start off this way. When the New York-based developer first swept up the 300-acre site, many thought the planned golf course would be a financial boon for a city economy just staggering out of a recession.

A landslide in 1999 had caused part of the property to collapse into the Pacific Ocean, driving the previous owners into bankruptcy. Trump snagged the land for a deeply discounted $27 million, in his first West Coast real estate venture.

Michetti recalled Trump being "charming" and said residents "fell over themselves" for him and what he would do for the town. City officials organized a business leaders' breakfast to introduce him to the community, Clark said.

Three years later, Trump's namesake golf course opened with an LPGA tournament where world-class golfers oohed and ahhed at the view of the vast ocean and the 45,000-square-foot clubhouse decked out with a giant, elaborate crest on one wall.

But Trump soon started ruffling feathers, suing the school district over the lease of a piece of land it owned in the golf course and planting a row of tall ficus trees to block from view homes he deemed unsightly.

"The law does not require the city or any regulators to allow him to have whatever he may wake up one morning and want," said Councilman Douglas Stern, who has long pitted himself against Trump.

Residents responded with rolling eyes and smirks when Trump repeatedly tried to have the adjacent Ocean Trails Drive renamed Trump National Drive. Perhaps it should be called "Ego Aisle" or "Narcissism Lane," some residents quipped in protest.

The central issue in the suit is a series of geological studies and reviews the city required of Trump's company to build on the landslide-prone site. Clark and Stern said the city had an obligation to ensure that everything on the golf course was built to city codes, to ensure public safety. Stuart Miller, Trump's attorney, said the city was unfairly holding him to higher standards and more stringent regulations.

Trump accused the city of trying to prolong his projects to extract fees from him, when, as he sees it, the town should be grateful for his developments.

"I took a piece of land that was lying fallow, tied up in courts for years and created the No. 1 course in California," he said.

Trump is confident he remains popular among Palos Verdeans -- he said he had conducted a private poll of residents in the area and found he had an 88% approval rating.

Trump declined to give details about the poll, saying he is planning to use it in litigation.

At least one resident said he sided with Trump.

"He has rehabilitated that property to an outstanding venue and really a credit to the community," said 78-year-old Ken DeLong, a part-time telecommunications consultant who is retired. "It is a world-class addition to our community."

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

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