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Maps too old for subdividing, judges say!

A Santa Ynez landowner loses his bid to use 100-year old assessor’s maps to subdivide his valley property.

July 30, 1998

In a significant victory for the county, two superior Court judges have ruled that a Santa Ynez landowner may not rely on maps dating back to 1888 to subdivide his land.

The landowner, Gerald Kessler, has asked the county to validate a 36-acre lot that he claimed was created by a line shown on 1888 and 1909 county maps. The maps depict a grid of postage stamp-sized parcels covering Kessler’s 176-acre Circle K Ranch.

When the county board of Supervisors declined to recognize his antiquated lot, Kessler sued – and lost.

Judges Richard St. John, now retired, and Carlos Baker Jr. ruled in February and June respectively, that the 1888 and 1909 maps were nothing more than assessor’s maps drawn up for the purpose of indexing parcels for tax collection. The judges said these maps could not be used to subdivide property, that is, the lines on them did not represent the boundaries of lots that could be bought and sold or built on.

In addition, the court found that a separate 1888 map that Kessler was basing his claim on was merely a reference map for drawing up future deeds.

The rulings in Superior Court in Santa Maria marked the first time that a California court had ever addressed the question of the old maps head-on.

Around the state, these antiquated “paper subdivisions,” drawn up in the speculative frenzy of the late 1880’s, could potentially create tens of thousands of new lots – mainly in agricultural areas – should they be found to be legal.

“That would be counter to the whole purpose of modern planning and orderly development,” said Deputy County Counsel Alan Seltzer. “The incentive to rely on antiquated maps as the back door to creating subdivisions comes from the desire to avoid the front door requirements of modern law.”

Kesssler, owner of Nature’s Plus vitamin company and Zaca Lake Resort, was out of town on Monday and could not be reached for comment.

He brought this ranch in 1990 from the family of Ray Kroc, developer of the McDonald’s restaurant chain.

Kessler’s attorney, John Dorwin of Buellton, said he would appeal the case. He contends that the legislature has repeatedly validated all the old maps as legal.

“I think an old subdivision is just as good as a new subdivision,” Dorwin said. “The old map is part of our title. The county is trying to rewrite history and alter all of the land titles that refer to old ranchos. We’re talking about thousands of deeds.”

Dorwin said that Kessler has paid taxes over the years on two separate assessor’s parcels that make up the ranch. He might like to build another house or put in a vineyard on the 36 acres that he is seeking permission to split off. Dorwin said.

If Kessler and other Santa Ynez Valley landowners were allowed to break up their land according to the old maps, Dorwin said, many mom-and-pop vineyards could be created and agriculture would gain a firmer hold in the valley.

Dorwin noted that land for vineyards is presently selling for $10,000 per acre.

“We don’t think you have to worry about urbanization,” he said. “It’s going to be grapes.”

There are 10 antiquated maps on record in Santa Barbara County, covering the Santa Ynez Valley and portions of Summerland, Montecito, the Los Alamos Valley and the Gaviota Coast.

In 1994, the county lost an important case involving an antiquated map in Naples, a “ghost” township on the coast west of Goleta that appears on an 1888 map, but which was never built.

The county validated several hundred lots at Naples but required the Morehart family, the owners of the land, to merge them where possible to conform with modern 100-acre zoning.

The state Supreme Court ruled, however, that the county’s merger requirement was illegal under state law. At the same time, the court pointedly avoided the question of whether the antiquated maps were valid.

Ever since the ruling in the Morehart case, the county has declined to recognize the parcels shown on such maps as legal.

A landowner wishing to divide his land in the county today must go through environmental review and abide by the minimum lot size. In Kessler’s case, the minimum size is 100 acres, so with only 176 acres he did not have quite enough land to apply for a two lot subdivision.

In addition, there are requirements for street and sewer improvements and contributions to school funds whenever a property owner subdivides land.

An owner may also be required to provide a public trail, or limit development because of steep slopes.

Without these “front door” provisions for infrastructure, a subdivision would place an extra burden on county finances, Seltzer said.

“The public treasury is forced to subsidize them,” he said. “That’s what the game’s all about these days.”