Santa Rosa must pay nearly a quarter of a million dollars in attorneys fees and court costs to the homebuilders group that successfully challenged the legality of a city tax on new subdivisions.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Mark Tansil last week awarded more than $244,000 to the lawyers who represented the Home Builders Association of Northern California, Inc. in its two-year suit against the city.

"The plaintiff's successful enforcement of fair and free voting rights in Santa Rosa vindicated important constitutional rights that affect the public interest," Tansil wrote.

The homebuilders were represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm in Sacramento that specializes in property rights cases. The lead attorney in the case, Paul Beard, said he appreciated not only the award but the tone of the judge's ruling.

"We were particularly pleased by the fact that the judge recognized the gravity of the situation," Beard said.

The city in 2008 passed a tax surcharge on most new home construction in Santa Rosa as a way to pay for the additional cost of public services, particularly police and fire protection.

The homebuilders sued, claiming the law unfairly forced property owners to give up their voting rights in exchange for the right to subdivide their property. Tansil agreed, finding the law "unfairly tampers with the elective process."

The City Council in March decided not to appeal the case. The homebuilders then filed a motion for attorneys' fees. The law allows fees and court costs to be recovered by plaintiffs in certain civil rights cases, Beard said. The law exists to encourage people to sue when their civil rights have been violated, and to discourage government agencies from passing laws or otherwise violating those rights, he said.

"The constitutional nature of the case really justified the fees," Beard said.

The city argued the group was not entitled to fees and costs because its members had a "significant financial interest in bringing the action," City Attorney Caroline Fowler said. The city also argued the requested fees were unreasonable.

But Tansil was effusive in his praise of the homebuilders' attorneys, and said they deserved their fees because they performed an important public service in protecting people's voting rights.

He called their work "outstanding" and the results "excellent, benefiting not only the client, but the general public as well."

He awarded the three attorneys in the cases between $350 and $450 per hour, less than they requested. The group had asked for $275,000. He also awarded $894 in costs and rejected $961 in requested travel expenses.

The award will begin earning 7 percent interest from the time he signs the final order, Beard said.

The city's vigorous defense of the ordinance increased the costs of the case, Beard said.

"They caused a lot of the work that was required," Beard said.

For the city's case, however, Tansil showed little regard. The suit was necessary because the city passed the "offending ordinance" and then "steadfastly refused to rescind it." He said the city's argument against the fees was "ineffectual" and "vague" and "accomplished nothing."

Fowler said the City Council will need to decide whether to appeal the ruling. She said she didn't know how much the city spent defending the law because her office doesn't track the hours spent on cases where the city is a defendant.