Property owners from the Seely Creek area met with Humboldt County planning staff in Eureka Wednesday, Aug. 22 to discuss their parcels, possible illegal subdivisions and how to remedy county concerns.
Since last September, the county has been mailing out letters to property owners who have shaded parcels - properties with an uncertain legal status - to notify them that their land may have been improperly subdivided.
Interim Planning and Building Department director Martha Spencer said the county has identified more than 1,500 shaded parcels. Since last September, 1,320 letters have been mailed out to property owners. She said 442 parcel owners have contacted the department and been removed from the list since the notices were sent.
"They have to be found they were legally created or remedied," Spencer said.
Parcels become shaded when the planning department finds that a lot has been recorded for taxes with the assessor's office, but not for development with planning staff. Planners then "shade" the parcel on a map with a pencil to indicate its uncertain legal status. Parcel owners must record their property with both departments to have it considered a legal parcel.
Wednesday's meeting was a chance for the 25 owners of 30 properties in Seely Creek near Redway to discuss their shaded parcels and the process of getting them into compliance, Spencer said. She said this is the first step before property owners receive a notice stating they've violated the state's Subdivision Map Act. Once this occurs, restrictions such as the inability to get building permits ensues.
"Legally, they're not allowed to sell or lease the property," Spencer said.
She said four notices of subdivision violations have been recorded in the past year. Under state law, the county is required to regulate subdivisions to make sure land use issues such as streets and sewage disposal are properly handled. About 10 Seely Creek property holders attended Wednesday's private meeting with county staff, who limited participation to owners. A Times-Standard reporter was not allowed to attend.
Spencer said it's believed developer Bob McKee subdivided about 1,400 acres of property in 1974 without filing for approval with the county, creating illegal Seely Creek lots. McKee is currently involved in a lawsuit with the county regarding the subdivision of the 13,700-acre Garberville-area Tooby Ranch property.
Seely Creek property owner Georje Holper said she's frustrated with how the county is handling the issue.
"To put the burden on us is not right," Holper said.
As a group, the property owners said it's the county's responsibility to determine the legality of the parcels - especially since they didn't know the parcels were illegal when they were purchased. They said the county doesn't have any records of when the parcels were shaded or by whom, so the burden of proof is on the county.
Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights chairman Lee Ulansey said he knows for a fact that some of the properties were shaded by people who simply took a pencil to the antiquated maps. He said the maps aren't kept under lock and key, so access to the records isn't monitored.
Ulansey said the county has gone about the shaded parcel issue the wrong way, pushing Hum CPR - a private property rights organization - to file a lawsuit against the county in April. He said the county needed to do more research on each parcel before simply declaring them all illegal.
"They need to get to that solution before they disrupt people's lives," Ulansey said.
Local attorney Eric Kirk is representing about one-third of the Seely Creek property owners. He said the next step for many of his clients is to file for a conditional certificate of compliance with the county. The certificate would outline the improvements required to make each plot legal, such as bringing sewer systems up to code.
Kirk said the certificate could cost his clients anywhere from $300 to $1,700, depending on whether new parcel maps or surveyors have to be utilized. In the meantime, he said his clients will be looking for documentation, such as building permits, titles and deeds to prove their lots are legal.
Kirk said it appears the county wants to resolve the parcel problem in a way that is as painless as possible.
"I'm getting that once they have the conditional certificate of compliance, they've done their due diligence in the state," he said. __Spencer said the Seely Creek property owners are just the first batch of people to receive a letter inviting them to meet with planning staff before notice of violations are sent. An additional 82 letters to property owners are in the works.
She said she understands this is a difficult situation for the innocent purchasers of illegally subdivided land.
"I totally appreciate the concern or alarm of the property owners," Spencer said.
MEGAN HANSEN/THE TIMES-STANDARD
A map of the Seely Creek area, displayed last Wednesday, shows "shaded parcels" as circled numbers shaded in with a pencil. The county is trying to determine the legal status of each of these parcels.