As the sun set on the sprawling green horizon, Jo Grove and her then-8-year-old daughter sat atop horses on the hillside, looking down on the family’s 20-acre Los Olivos property.
The lush land was new to Jo and her husband, Bill, in 1997 when the couple moved to the Santa Ynez Valley from the Bay Area to retire and start their own horse training and boarding business.
With one daughter heading off to college, Grove cherished rides with her youngest, already a lover of horses and equally enthused about a change to rural scenery.
“She said, ‘You know, mommy, this is our dream come true,’” Grove recalled for Noozhawk on a recent afternoon, sitting in the off-white, 1889 farmhouse with green shutters on their property, about a mile off Highway 154.
“That’s why we moved here,” she said. “It had everything we wanted.”
The peaceful fantasy was short-lived, however, after new neighbors on surrounding properties began a 10-year campaign against how the Groves used their land.
The nightmare took a scary — quite public — turn recently when the couple nearly lost the right to live in the old farmhouse they’ve owned for nearly 17 years.
In a first-of-its-kind ruling, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted to terminate the legal nonconforming-use permit that allowed the Groves to reside in the older of two homes on their property because of language in zoning laws, created after the house was built.
Then the board reversed its vote, allowing the Groves’ use to continue.
The ordeal seemingly over, the family wants to ensure this doesn’t happen to others.
What could have been a precedent-setting case has spurned heated discussion about property owners’ constitutional rights, prompting the county Planning Commission to re-examine the merits of some zoning codes this summer.
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The Grove property was part of a larger ranch when the three-bedroom farmhouse was built in 1889.
County zoning laws rolled out in 1950 deemed the parcel agricultural, and in 1978 the Stewart family — owners of Stewart Land & Cattle Co. and a related ranch company — was granted permits to restore what county documents called an “old Civil War house” for use as an office and headquarters for the ranch, possibly as housing for ranch hands.
At the time, zoning allowed agricultural properties more than one primary residence based on land and number of people, so the Stewarts built another house, according to John Karamitsos, county supervising planner.
When zoning laws were modified in the 1980s, allowing just one residence, the old farmhouse became “legal nonconforming” — meaning the building could remain in its existing condition if it continued to be used in the same way, a sort of “grandfathered-in” process.
The Groves moved into the newer primary residence at 3110 Acampo Road when they purchased property within the Rancho Cuerno Largo neighborhood, but Jo Grove, 61, always had her eye on the farmhouse.
“When we bought this, I always loved this house,” she said. “It’s cute. I always wanted to live here.”
The horse-boarding and training business was booming — 27 horses at its peak — and included an arena, barn and two trailers permitted to house a full-time trainer and a full-time farm hand/gardener.
Since the farmhouse was closer to horse stalls, the Groves constantly dined there and often threw parties in what old timers refer to as the supposedly haunted “Ghost House.”
Their youngest daughter, Annie, went off to veterinarian school in July 2010, which is when the Groves moved into the smaller, furnished farmhouse.
A seasoned realtor, Bill Grove, 70, thought it would be easier to rent out the modern residence, and they did.
For reasons not entirely clear — but vaguely tied to traffic concerns— the farmhouse became a focus for the Groves’ neighbor, Kelly Rose, who moved into an adjacent lot at 3210 Acampo Road with his wife in 2003.
More precisely, the Groves’ use of the farmhouse as a primary residence became the latest crusade for Rose, who between 2004 and 2011 filed four alleged violations against the Groves with the county Planning and Development Department.
Rose, who did not respond to Noozhawk’s multiple requests for comment, took issue with permits for the farm employee dwellings, commercial horse-boarding operation, potential renting of the old farmhouse, and spreading of horse manure and materials on trails.
With the exception of spreading horse materials — the Groves were asked to clean up and discontinue the practice — planning staff sided with the Groves every time.
In 2011, Rose alleged the Groves occupied the old farmhouse in violation of the county’s land use and development code, since the building had been permitted as a farm office/seasonal farm dwelling since 1991.
Again, three senior planning staff, including planning director Glen Russell, ruled in favor of the Groves.
Rose petitioned the matter up to the Board of Supervisors, which agreed to hear the case.
“It was constant, with the county,” Jo Grove said. “He was always coming up with things. That’s why this whole thing with the Board of Supervisors had a history.”
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Accustomed to Rose’s accusations, the Groves didn’t hire an attorney for the March 11 Board of Supervisors hearing.
Rose did, and the supervisors heard evidence during the five-hour, quasi-legal hearing, a rare process requiring parties to give sworn testimony under oath.
In a 167-page petition, Rose alleged the Groves had “abandoned” the structure, according to zoning code, which states a nonconforming use shall be terminated if that use is discontinued for a period of at least 12 months.
Some county documents referred to the farmhouse as a “guest house,” as did the Groves in passing for more than a year after they first moved in.
Planning staff said the farmhouse was not abandoned, and that it was being used as a residence, in line with permits. It couldn’t be a guest house because the home was larger than 800 square feet and has a kitchen, planners said.
“Part of the issue is the long history of that structure,” Karamitsos told Noozhawk. “The neighbor, Mr. Rose, objected to the way the Groves were using the property. People buy a piece of property, and it has development on it, and it’s not unreasonable for them to assume they can use that property the way it’s been used over time. If you’re out in the country, those things are maybe more likely to happen than in town.”
During the hearing, Rose said he didn’t want to kick the Groves out of their home, he merely wanted the use to be within the law.
“The problem comes with the fact that the county has very specific rules for abating those populations (of nonconforming use),” Rose said. “This petition is not about finding blame. It’s not about pointing fingers. It’s about trying to get it right.”
Julie Kirby, who lives adjacent to the Groves, said she and husband, Steven, frequently rode horses with their neighbors, seeing the farmhouse used as long as they owned it.
Both sides argued for common sense.
After a lengthy debate, the supervisors voted 3-2 to terminate the nonconforming use. The three South Coast supervisors — Salud Carbajal of the First District, Janet Wolf of the Second and Doreen Farr of the Third — voted as the majority with the two North County supervisors — Peter Adam of the Fourth District and Steve Lavagnino of the Fifth —dissenting.
The Groves would have to bring the home up to current code or move out.
Jo Grove started sobbing, having heard from multiple people that getting a permit for the house — with a dirt floor in the basement — would never happen.
“I got a little hysterical,” she said. “I was shocked that these people could sit there so callously and say that we couldn’t live in our house anymore. These people, knowing that we probably wouldn’t be able to get this house that’s 130 years old permitted, still sat there and voted us out of our home.”
“And gave us three years” to move out, her husband added.
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The decision didn’t kick up much dust until Adam wrote two widely read commentaries in Noozhawk, pointing to the decades-long neighbor feud and what he said was a bias built into zoning code against nonconforming-use structures.
By the time the second reading came before the supervisors on April 1, Jo Grove said everyone in the Valley knew about their predicament.
John Jones and his wife, who live on the other side of the Groves, came out in Rose’s defense, saying he was not the “villain” or “neighborhood bully” he was made out to be.
Rose’s wife called the Groves’ property “a mess” that she and her husband had to endure in retirement.
This time, the Groves had an attorney, who spoke after Adam recused himself because of his op-ed articles, leaving the hearing.
Farr and Wolf again sided with Rose, noting the unusual situation but focusing on what they said was a clear code violation.
Since the first hearing, Carbajal had requested that planning staff develop a second finding of fact to support not terminating the use. After further consideration, he said he was changing his vote due to insufficient evidence.
Lavagnino found no intent to abandon the house, but lamented the fractured neighborhood.
Farr’s motion to terminate the nonconforming use failed 2-2, which effectively allowed the use to continue.
“It was a very complicated issue,” Carbajal told Noozhawk. “I got the sense that this did stem from bad relations among some of the neighbors.”
Jo Grove struggled to see the complexities, but was grateful for the support the couple received from friends and strangers.
“It was a vendetta,” she said. “It was so obvious that it was a vendetta.”
None of the supervisors said they knew the Groves or Rose personally, although, according to financial disclosure filings, Rose did donate $3,000 to Wolf’s re-election campaign three days after the final vote.
Wolf said Rose sent her a note after the hearing saying he was impressed with her comments. Standing by her vote, she said land-use issues are “very complicated and intense.”
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The Groves’ horse boarding and training business was a shadow of its former self on a recent afternoon, a dozen or so horses sauntering in fenced fields at the bottom of a hill, barely visible to Rose’s residence.
A new trainer is building business as the Groves wait for what they expect will be further retaliation.
Although planners say Rose has run out of recourse through the county, that doesn’t rule out the courts.
“We always considered it our residence,” Jo Grove said. “There was never any intent to abandon. It really would’ve been a bad precedent to set.”
Adam took that a step further, recommending the section be stricken from the statutes.
Neighbors can go after neighbors, and even strangers, if they prove how a nonconforming use has an impact on them, he said.
“This is how topsy-turvy that concept is,” Adam said. “The land owner decides when the nonconforming use is going to get terminated. Until you tear it down, it’s still a house.
“Every time we change the zoning, we add to nonconforming uses. If you go spend money and build a house — if they’re able to maintain it and keep it usable — there’s no reason that somebody should one day say you can’t use it anymore.”
Adam said his commentaries raised awareness, but Carbajal called them “misguided” and a potential liability for county taxpayers.
Residents will have a chance to weigh in on zoning codes during a Planning Commission workshop hosted sometime this summer.
The nonconforming-use section will be addressed because of the Groves’ case, along with some already planned amendments, senior planner Noel Langle said.
The Groves plan to attend, especially since any actions could go before the supervisors for final approval in coming months.
“The big issue, in my mind, is how the government has the right to tell you to leave your own property, which you have a constitutional right to,” Bill Grove said.
His wife agreed, but had more trouble understanding what she said was the heartless nature of it all.
“We just want to live our life and enjoy our property,” she said, recalling how nice the neighborhood used to be. “Some people move here to have their dream come true, and some people move here to make it the way they want it.”