Bolinas neighbors in suit over greenbelt

11/20/2019

Frances McDormand and Joel Coen, the Oscar-winning acting and directing duo who have participated in community life since purchasing a home in Bolinas in 2005, sued their neighbors last month amid a years-long property line dispute. 

The lawsuit, filed in Marin Superior Court on Oct. 31, alleges that Donna and Randolph Rush failed to make good on a settlement agreement reached last May that drew a new line between the properties, which lie on the bluff above the Surfer’s Overlook. 

The Rushes, who will file a legal response within the month, wrote to the Light that over the past 45 years, they have “enjoyed a peaceful life in Bolinas” and that they “were very sad and disappointed that their neighbors filed a lawsuit.” 

The Rushes’ roughly two acres on San Rafael Avenue and Ms. McDormand and Mr. Coen’s three-quarter-acre lot are divided by a greenbelt that historically marked the property line and provided privacy with trees and other landscaped features. (Ms. McDormand and Mr. Coen also own 42 acres of adjoining open space.)

According to the suit, Ms. McDormand and Mr. Coen took on the upkeep of the greenbelt when they purchased the property in alignment with the practice of the previous owners, considering it “important to the privacy and tranquility” of their home. The Rushes, who have owned their home since 1976, contributed to some of the maintenance over the years.

The suit, which combines the surnames of the plaintiffs, says, “For reasons that have never been clear to the McCoens, however, beginning in late 2016 the Rushes chose to disrupt that longstanding harmony.” 

At that time, the Rushes declared a new property line that gave them dominion over the greenbelt. To support their view, the Rushes provided a 2007 property assessment from a land surveyor, Phillip A. Danskin & Associates, that determined a new boundary line that allotted them nearly 10 more feet. 

That determination posed a serious inconvenience, the suit states. “The Danskin line purported to take away from [Ms. McDormand and Mr. Coen’s property] a large chunk of the [driveway], creating a pinch point in the driveway impairing access to the parking area,” the suit describes. The property line assessment put the greenbelt area on the Rushes’ property and Ms. McDormand and Mr. Coen’s garage within a minimum property setback, creating a compliance issue.

Ms. McDormand and Mr. Coen subsequently obtained their own survey by a different company, L.A. Stevens and Associates, which confirmed the previously understood boundary line. Among other evidence, the company found the line “represented by the original fence and iron pipes that had been set into the ground as monuments along that fence line.”

Last May, both couples convened at the Rushes’ house to come to an agreement, aided by a professional mediator. According to the suit, after a day of conversation that lasted into the night, both parties inked a settlement. That agreement described a new property line that essentially gave the Rushes the greenbelt. Ms. McDormand and Mr. Coen were given ownership of several pittosporum trees and an easement to continue to maintain a retaining wall that holds a large planter box.

Ms. McDormand and Mr. Coen thought all was well. Shortly after the meeting, Mr. Coen wrote in an email to his neighbors, “We would like to say that we are very glad and grateful to you both that we were able to come to an agreement about this little patch of ground here in Bolinas that is precious and important to us all.”

The suit says the Rushes connected the irrigation system to their property and immediately began to maintain the greenbelt, and do so now. Yet the Rushes failed to take the steps necessary to honor the settlement, the suit argues, instead erecting further roadblocks. The couple refused to sign subsequent documents and raised new concerns, including over the best method of legally adjusting the property line and the placement of their own propane tank. 

The suit describes Ms. McDormand and Mr. Coen bending over backwards to resolve these issues. “Because Danskin, the Rushes’ surveyor, said that the settlement boundary line could be established only by a lot line adjustment, in an attempt to eliminate the issue and appease the Rushes and Danskin, the McCoens agreed that the parties would prepare and submit the settlement boundary line as part of a lot line agreement, even though such process was much more expensive, time-consuming and legally unnecessary.”

After signing the settlement agreement, the Rushes informed their neighbors that the new line left their propane tank within the mandatory property line setback. Though the Bolinas Volunteer Fire Department said it would grandfather in the tank, the Rushes remained unsatisfied. 

In response, Ms. McDormand and Mr. Coen proposed obtaining a third-party estimate of the cost of moving the tank to another location on the Rush property, and offered to pay that sum in full. “Not only did the Rushes refuse this generous attempt at accommodation of their groundless objection, the Rushes took the absurd position that the McCoen’s offer of payment suggested that the McCoens must secretly be intending to take some action to force them to move the propane tank,” the suit states.

Citing the propane tank issue, the Rushes’ lawyer in August informed Ms. McDormand and Mr. Coen that they did not plan to honor the settlement. 

The suit asks the court to enforce that agreement, but outlines a second choice: for the court to enforce the previous property line as the legal boundary. A third option still would be to give the plaintiffs the greenbelt “by adverse possession, or alternatively recognize the McCoens’ prescriptive easement to occupy, plant and maintain the greenbelt and other land” on their side of the prior property line. 

“While the McCoens believe they have a binding and enforceable settlement agreement with the Rushes, the facts support all these alternative resolutions in the McCoens’ favor,” the suit concludes. 

The first case management hearing will take place on March 19.