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Drawing the Line!

Appeals court bars use of 'antiquated maps' to subdivide Santa Ynez Valley property

March 29, 2000

In a case with statewide significance, an appeals court has ruled that a Santa Ynez Valley landowner may not rely on the lines in century-old maps to subdivide his land.

It is the first time a higher court has addressed head-on the dilemma posed by the so-called "antiquated maps" that underlie much of California's rural land.

In the late 1880s, land speculators recorded several hundred thousand tiny lots on maps throughout California, creating "ghost" townships that existed only on paper. The Southern Pacific Railroad, one of the biggest land companies, gave away bunches of lots in the Bay Area to promote new subscriptions to Sunset magazine.

Now landowners are increasingly turning to these antiquated maps to claim legal lots -- and county governments are crying foul, because the lots shown on the old maps are much smaller than what modern-day zoning allows.

"The theory that old maps create lots operates as a detriment to society as a whole," said Alan Seltzer, a chief deputy Santa Barbara County counsel. "To have towns pop up next to farmland would introduce incompatible uses, threatening the stability of agriculture within the state."

Gerald Kessler, the landowner in the local case, will appeal his case to the state Supreme Court, his lawyers said Tuesday. Kessler contends a boundary line on an 1888 surveyors' map of the Santa Ynez Valley legally subdivides his 176-acre Circle K Ranch into two parcels, one of them 36 acres in size. The ranch on Happy Canyon Road formerly belonged to the late Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald's.

John Dorwin, Kessler's attorney, said his client would like to be able to sell the smaller parcel, build a house on it or establish a vineyard there. Even before 1888, the property was subdivided twice by the Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, Dorwin said.

"The appeals court opinion doesn't go into the history of this rancho," he said. "The court completely ignores the chain of title. The opinion raises more questions than it answers as to when you have a subdivision."

The Second District Court of Appeal in Ventura upheld a Santa Barbara Superior Court ruling that before 1893, a lot was not legal unless it was transferred by deed -- that is, sold. In 1893, the Legislature passed its first land division laws.

"The parcel in question here was not the past dream of a 19th century would-be developer," Judge Arthur Gilbert wrote in the March 21 appellate court ruling. "It is the recent dream of a late 20th century property owner ... But United States government survey lines do not by themselves subdivide property. Circle K is simply seeking to create a parcel where none had existed before."

There are 10 antiquated maps in Santa Barbara County, covering the Santa Ynez Valley and portions of Summerland, Montecito, Los Alamos Valley and the Gaviota coast. Most counties have the old maps on record; and for at least two decades, local governments and legislators have been trying to decide what to do about them. Many counties, including Santa Barbara, have made it their policy not to recognize the lots on old maps unless they were sold about a century ago.

Property owners have responded by filing lawsuits.

In San Luis Obispo County, the owner of Santa Ysabel Hot Springs Ranch outside Paso Robles is claiming the right to 577 legal lots, based on an antiquated map. The county has recognized only 135 of these lots. In Sonoma County, a landowner is claiming the right to 12 legal lots in a rural area near Sebastopol, based on an 1865 map.

"I was watching Circle K with great interest," said Sue Gallagher, a deputy counsel for Sonoma County. "I expect it will decide our case as well. The 1865 map covers a very large, water-scarce area. If this property owner were to prevail, we would expect others to come forward with applications.

"So many of these maps are simply grids that are laid over vast open spaces without regard to the topography or infrastructure or natural resources. They're very troubling for our Board of Supervisors," Gallagher said.

Under modern subdivision law, a landowner seeking to divide a property and sell off or develop lots must provide water and sewer services and pay fees for roads, schools, parks and public safety. Often the owner must prepare a comprehensive report to assess the impacts of the project on the environment; and the owner may be required to offset any harmful effects.

County officials fear that if they recognize the lots shown on the old maps, the landowners could not be held responsible for fees and services -- and local governments would end up footing the bill.

"We'd be bankrupt," said Giny Chandler, a deputy counsel for Humboldt County.

But property rights lawyers say counties have ample rules to prevent disorderly development, even on antiquated lots. Too steep a slope would make it impossible to build a home even on a legal lot, for example.

"This isn't about a total exemption from the rules," said June Barlow, general counsel for the California Association of Realtors, which filed a court brief on behalf of Circle K. "Cities and counties should not disregard these time-honored boundaries. They should use their zoning and general plans instead of this back-door way to get at development control."

Susan Petrovich, a Santa Barbara attorney, said the appeals court decision was not the last word on the validity of the antiquated maps.

"I think there's still a fair argument that they were intended as subdivision maps," Petrovich said. "They were filed with the county recorder, not just kept in a developer's drawer. I do not share the courts' view."

In the mid-1980s, Santa Barbara County began to require the merger of antiquated lots to conform to modern zoning. But this approach failed to hold up at Naples, a paper township on the Gaviota coast just west of the Bacara Resort & Spa. The state Supreme Court ruled the county could not require mergers. - Associated Press News Wire