On the surface, it’s a common disagreement between two neighboring property owners over an access road that goes through one property to the other. But that dispute has quickly turned into a public spectacle because a property owner and the opposing attorney are both involved in a hotly contested election for a seat on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.
Eric Michielssen, who’s running against incumbent 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold, was hit with a lawsuit over that disagreement, which hinges on the legal basis of a 30-foot access road that runs through his property and connects an adjacent parcel to Parkhill Road.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF ERIC MICHIELSSEN
- HAY NOW: A truck passes on an access road that cuts through the property of Eric Michielssen, organic farmer and candidate for the 5th District county supervisor seat. Michielssen is being sued by his neighbor, John Philbrick, after a dispute over Philbrick’s use of the road for his farming operations grew contentious. Michielssen said it’s politically motivated.
The suit was filed on behalf of his neighbor, John Philbrick, who runs cattle and farms hay on hundreds of adjacent acres owned by him and his family. Philbrick said that while there are other ways to access his family’s property, he depends on that road to move large equipment because it’s the only one wide and level enough.
The two neighbors locked horns over the details of that road, causing Philbrick to worry if he’ll have continued access.
Michielssen purchased the 7.5-acre property in 2009, built a house near the access road, and started Pozo Organic Farms. He said that when he bought the property, there was no written proof that his neighbor had a legal right of way there. Philbrick disagrees, claiming he verbally told Michielssen about the road before and after Michielssen purchased the property. Michielssen said that’s a lie and contends that the right of way is listed on a different property nearby.
Nevertheless, he’s let Philbrick use the road for his farming operations, and the two have largely gotten along with gentlemen’s agreements. According to the lawsuit, Michielssen has been encroaching on that right of way, obstructing it with vehicles, mulch, firewood piles, and planted trees.
The lawsuit asserts that Philbrick has access to that road and that the confusion stems from a 1982 tract map, which mistakenly places the road in the wrong location on a nearby parcel.
The two have been discussing the issue for the last few years, but the situation intensified when they reached an impasse over whether Philbrick had a clear legal right to use the road. The situation boiled over, Philbrick said, when he started worrying if he’d have access to the road during hay harvest in May.
“A couple of weeks ago I talked to [Michielssen], and his comment was, ‘There is no easement here, and I guess we’ll have to settle this in the court of law,’” Philbrick said. “I don’t want to fight with him, but this, you know, is something I’ve asked the judge to make a ruling on.”
While acknowledging that the two have disagreed over the road, Michielssen said the lawsuit is motivated and timed by the current political season, not the hay harvest.
“They just let it sit there until the very end of the campaign and then they bring it up. That’s the smelly part of it all,” Michielssen said. “The whole thing is full of crap. It’s politically motivated, plain and simple.”
The suit was filed by Santa Margarita-based land-use attorney Sophie Treder, who lives in the Pozo-Parkhill area and is a key supporter and donor of Michielssen’s opponent Arnold. Treder was the attorney for Las Pilitas Resources LLC, which proposed a controversial gravel quarry on Highway 58 outside of Santa Margarita. The project drew ire from residents living near the site and in Santa Margarita, while receiving support from some nearby neighbors and members of the construction industry, who said the quarry would be a much-welcomed new supply of gravel.
The Board of Supervisors shot that proposal down in May 2015, but it had the support of Arnold, who represents the Margarita area. Michielssen cited that vote as the catalyst to his decision to run against Arnold, saying that she didn’t listen to her constituents’ concerns.
Treder said that the timing of the lawsuit is not what it looks like, and that she’s been consulting with Philbrick about the issue since long before Michielssen became a candidate in the race. She pointed to emails exchanged between the two neighbors last summer.
The disagreement slowly intensified around September, the same month Michielssen announced his campaign.
Treder said that either way, because of the uncertainty over the road, it’s in her client’s interest to clarify his legal rights to use the road. She also said she’s taken this case on as a friend of Philbrick—his daughter babysits her kids—and that she tried to get other attorneys to take the case, but none would because of the political dimension involved.
“It was not my intention to have to hit him with this right before the election,” Treder said. “It obviously doesn’t look good for anybody, but legally I have to do what’s right and ethical and not what’s going to make me popular.”
The lawsuit was filed May 26, just 12 days before the June 7 primary election.
Michielssen said he hasn’t been served as of June 1, and first heard about the suit when he was contacted on May 26 for a CalCoastNews.com story. He hasn’t yet had adequate time to file a legal response to the complaint. Meanwhile, he wonders if the lawsuit will even come to fruition.
“They just filed a lawsuit on paper, and then let it go to the press,” he said.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay