Property owners fight planners for Davis’ ear on coast bill |

Property owners fight planners for Davis’ ear on coast bill


SACRAMENTO(AP) – In the age-old struggle between private landowners and public planners, the newest Solomon-like task of choosing sides stops with Gov. Gray Davis.

Of the hundreds of bills Davis must sort through, few embody the push-pull of land politics more than one aiming to deal with an 83,000-acre ranch on the Central Coast. Called SB497, the Democratic-sponsored bill was intended to prevent land speculation they has driven up prices on some of California’s most desirable coastal property.

Opponents call the bill, rushed through the Legislature as it hurried to adjourn Sept. 15, an attempt to rein in property rights. Real estate agents, builders, foresters and land surveyors are lobbying Davis hard to veto the bill, which makes it harder for landowners to subdivide property.

A legislative majority, stung by accounts of speculators driving up prices of coastal wildlands by threatening development, wants to block Hearst Corp. from rearranging parcels on its San Simeon Ranch in similar fashion.

But Roger Lyon, Hearst’s attorney in San Luis Obispo County, says Hearst is only doing what numerous Central Coast landowners have done in selling land to conservation groups.

”It’s not driving up the value. It’s reflecting existing value,” he says of the process attacked by the Legislature.

Lyon says the bill will have no effect on Hearst Ranch if the governor signs it. He says Hearst is already negotiating to sell the land to the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund.

The Senate passed the bill 23-13. The Assembly passed it 41-33.

Critics, however, point to 1998 when two conservation groups paid a Las Vegas developer $43 million – twice his original asking price – for a 7,000-acre dairy farm north of Santa Cruz. Developer Brian Sweeney, claiming historic development rights based on old land documents, threatened to subdivide the coastal dairy farm into 139 parcels. Later, Sweeney also threatened to develop property near Big Sur and earned a $20 million profit by selling it to conservationists and foundations.

The debate hinges around an obscure practice in which historic records showing a cabin or well provide a current right to rearrange parcels. Landowners can file records moving individual parcels within the property and receive so-called ”certificates of compliance” from government planners. They allow, for example, parcels to be shifted from hillsides to beachfronts without complying with a county’s long-range growth blueprint called a general plan.

Officials in coastal Santa Barbara County are dealing with eight cases involving maps drawn before 1893, says Chief Assistant County Counsel Alan Seltzer.

”Many of these are legal, many are questionable,” he says of documents provided by developers.

The bill’s opponents are dominating the mail Davis has received about the bill, aides said. Of 25 letters received by Davis, 23 ask him to veto it. California Association of Land Surveyors lobbyist Ralph Simoni says the bill punishes small landowners for the sins of a large one, adding, ”The solution is much more drastic than the alleged problem.”

Davis hasn’t decided if he will sign the bill by Sen. Byron Sher, D-Stanford, an aide to the governor said. He has until Oct. 14.

At the California Coastal Commission, bill supporters account for 20 of 27 letters received there, said Davis spokesman Roger Salazar. The 56 telephone calls to Davis are split 50-50.

Coastal Commission Chairwoman Sara Wan calls Sher’s bill a ”tourniquet to stop the immediate bloodletting.” She says the practice is happening more frequently and ”is really getting blatant.”

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