Legal Victory for couple to rebuild home where one stood before Forest Fire

there arial, see sans-serif; font-size: 12pt;”>In response to a constitutional property rights lawsuit by Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) has agreed to stop prohibiting a couple from rebuilding a house on their vacant parcel where a home stood for 30 years before being destroyed by the Angora forest fire in 2007.

Donor-supported PLF, a national watchdog that litigates for property rights, represents the couple — Teresa Avila-Burns and her husband, Ray Burns — without charge, as with all PLF clients.

TRPA’s agreement comes in a just-approved lawsuit settlement, which Teresa calls an “unqualified victory” for the couple’s property rights.  She and Ray had been prohibited from making any use of their parcel, in a developed residential area in South Lake Tahoe, more than three miles south of the lake.  Now, under the settlement, about 3,100 square feet will be eligible for development, and they are allowed to build on 2,435 square feet within the buildable area.

Watch a 4-minute video about the case:


Statement from PLF attorney:  TRPA was committing a “taking”; It settled in response to strong Fifth Amendment arguments

Even though Ray and Teresa’s parcel is in a fully developed neighborhood, TRPA was prohibiting them from rebuilding by classifying it as within a “Stream Environment Zone.”

PLF’s lawsuit on the couple’s behalf, filed this past December, contended that TRPA was violating the Fifth Amendment, which requires “just compensation” when government takes property for public use without compensation (a mandate that applies not just to outright seizure of property, but also when all use of private property is denied).

“As our lawsuit argued, TRPA was engaged in a clear-cut, unconstitutional taking,” said PLF staff attorney Christopher Kieser.  “Because of the strength of our Fifth Amendment claim, TRPA started to backtrack soon after we filed our lawsuit.”

Ray and Teresa gladly accepted TRPA’s proposed settlement, which gives them enough room to build a house near the same place on the property where the previous home had stood.

“Before turning to PLF for help, Ray and Teresa had wrangled with the regulators for years,” said Kieser.  “Now, faced with being hauled before a court, TRPA is finally recognizing this couple’s fundamental rights, so they can finally move ahead with their dream to build a Lake Tahoe home for their elderly mothers.”

Statement from Teresa Avila-Burns: “an enormous win” —
and a message to TRPA that it is accountable for its abuses

“This settlement is an enormous win for us and for the rights of all property owners,” said Teresa Avila-Burns.  “Ray and I really did have all of our property rights taken away by the regulators, and there was no chance our rights would be restored if PLF had not gone to bat for us.

“TRPA has been denying middle class people like us our basic due process rights and rights as property owners,” Ms. Avila-Burns continued.  “Now, thanks to the work of PLF, TRPA finally had to acknowledge that it will be held accountable for these injustices.

“Before PLF got involved, my husband and I thought our only option to fight TRPA was to choose not to provide our son the financial support we had planned during his college education,” she noted.  “In other words, we could not have afforded to defend our property rights, and our dream of building a retirement home for our parents.

“My husband and I, and our entire family, are so very grateful for the time and effort that PLF attorneys have committed to assist us when we needed your help!”

PLF will keep holding TRPA’s feet to the fire

Ray and Teresa are residents of San Jose.  Teresa is a nurse and Ray works as a project manager in construction.  They long dreamed of purchasing a parcel in the Tahoe area where they could build a home where both of their elderly mothers could enjoy the area’s tranquility.  In 2009, they finally got the opportunity to purchase a parcel out of foreclosure.

But TRPA blocked their plans for years — until they sued and won the just-finalized settlement.

“Before PLF got involved in the case, the Burns seemingly had little chance to convince TRPA to change its mind,” said Kieser.  “After all, TRPA has aggressively pursued its anti-development agenda for decades.  Ray and Teresa are far from the only victims.  PLF is determined to bring another case against TRPA and get a federal court to rule that the agency must compensate property owners when it declares their property open space.  For now, we are thrilled to announce this settlement for our clients!”

More information on Burns v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency , including the complaint , and a blog post by Christopher Kieser, is available at:


pacific.legalAbout Pacific Legal Foundation
Donor-supported PLF is the leading watchdog organization that litigates for limited government and property rights.  PLF’s precedent-setting property rights victories include the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1997 ruling in Suitum v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.  In that case, the court shot down TRPA’s Byzantine procedural scheme attempting to block property owners from seeking judicial relief for denial of their property rights.


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