Legal: Case in Orange County, California

The following article appeared in the Orange County Register, Oct. 27, 2000:

Homey or hazardous? Fireplace sparks suit.

Courts: Laguna Hills woman's battle against hearth at home lands her in a defamation suit.

By Susan Gill Vardon, The Orange County Register

Laguna Hills- The wood-burning fireplace in the unassuming brown stucco house is either a poison-spewing menace or a comforting presence to two elderly people who live there.

For the past year and a half, Lynn Alix-Edwards, who weighs in on the noxious side of the argument, has waged a vigorous campaign, calling on the city of Laguna Hills, South Coast Air Quality Management District and the Orange County Sheriff's Department and Fire Authority to get the fireplace shut down.

Her comments landed her in a lawsuit that went to court Thursday.

Alix-Edwards has complained that thick smoke billows for hours a day out of the chimney at the Palms I private care home for the elderly with Alzheimer's or dementia. Even in the summer, its fumes make her sick and exacerbate her foster child's asthma.
"Nobody knows what is actually burned in this chimney, but we all know that the smoke enters our homes through our vents every day, even with our window shut," Alix-Edwards wrote in an Oct. 3 letter addressed to the city, other public agencies and the media. This is a major health risk for all the surrounding families."

Her claims led Cherie Knopf, owner of The Palms I, to sue Alix-Edwards and other Laguna Terrace neighbors Oct. 20 for defamation, harassment and invasion of privacy.

Orange County Superior Court judge Robert Monarch on Thursday denied Knopf's request that he order Alix-Edwards to stop making "false" public statements about the fireplace.

The judge also told the two sides to stop "harassing one another," said Sharon Cusic, Knopfs attorney.

In the lawsuit, Knopf notes a- and Laguna Hills officials concur- that the fireplace and chimney do not violate any city codes and that inspectors from the South Coast Air Quality Management District found no evidence of excessive smoke around the chimney.

What the fire place does, Cusic said, is provide tow 93-year-olds with warmth and comfort. They like the look of it," Cusic said. "The most important goal is making them feel at home." Ara Sahelian, Alix-Edwards' attorney, declined to comment Thursday. He also asked Alix-Edwards and other neighbor not to comment.

But in court papers, he said his client has a First Amendment right to voice concerns about her family's health.

He also filed affidavits in which several other Laguna Terrace neighbors vent about the fireplace.

In one, Christina Speer says she moved out of her rental house because she believed the smoke was making her three daughters sick.

With my girls, there was no apparent reason for their constant battles with upper respiratory infections other than the smoke they were force to breathe day and night," Speer sain in the document.

Her daughters, 16, 12, and 4 months are healthier since the move, she said.

Cusic said the chimney dispute may boil down to the fact that Alix-Edwards simply doesn't want an elder-care home in her neighborhood. The home opened in 1988, she said.

"I've seen neighborhood vendettas before, and they are very ugly, Cusic said. "And it is deliberately disturbing those (elderly) residents."

Knopf is particularly upset about an unnamed neighbor's Oct. 12 complaint to the Orange County Sheriff's Department that she was burning diapers and other materials in the home, Cusic said.

Sheriff's deputies responded and found nothing burning in the fireplace, she said.

Capt. Michael Mish of the Orange County Fire Authority said he has been out to the Elder-care home twice to check out residents' complaints and found nothing wrong.

Mish said he can see both sides of the argument.

"As far as I can see, the people who have the fireplace are not breaking any laws," Mish said. "And I think the prevailing winds blow the smoke to this woman's (Alix-Edwards) house. I don't see any way to remedy the situation to make everybody happy."

But he says he understands why Alix-Edwards is fighting.

If I had a sick kid, I might be doing that, too."
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The lawyer for published the following advisory (as a pdf file or as a Word file ) regarding free speech to the residents of Orange County.

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