I wrote recently about a Board of Supervisors decision concerning an old farmhouse in Los Olivos. Its continued use had been "grandfathered in" as a "legal non-conforming use." But "legal non-conforming" structures have a kind of second-class citizenship. Various provisions in the Land Use Code allow these structures to be "abated." It’s a fancy way of saying that you can’t use them anymore.
Bill and Jo Grove, the owners of the farmhouse, ran afoul of those regulations recently. Our South Coast board majority decided that the Groves could no longer use the house they owned as their home. They face having to move out.
When many people read my first op-ed on this subject, they wondered why would this become an issue. The real origin of this fight is a long-standing feud between a neighbor, Mr. Kelly Rose, and the Groves.
The hearing made it clear to me that Mr. Rose’s appeal to the board was brought, not out of altruistic, civic-minded concern for the integrity of our county zoning code, but out of spite and as an avenue of revenge.
It doesn’t take much to become "legal non-conforming." Any small change in zoning will do it. Because of the incessant revision of our zoning, more and more property is becoming "legal non-conforming."
Under current law, it doesn’t take much for the owner of a legal non-conforming property to lose rights. Simply walking away for a year triggers an automatic loss of legal status. County Code Section 35.101.020 says: “A nonconforming use that is discontinued for a continuous period of at least 12 consecutive months shall be considered to be abandoned and the rights to continue the nonconforming use shall terminate ... .”
Mr. Rose used the county Board of Supervisors and the zoning code to inflict pain on his neighbor. The Board of Supervisors majority used Mr. Rose’s complaint to launch a scheme that they have concocted to abate existing non-conforming uses.
And our abatement procedures won't be confined to feuding neighbors. Those procedures can be used by an environmental organization or the trails people or the bird watchers or somebody who wants access to a beach. You see, whenever you change the zoning, exiting structures and uses risk becoming non-conforming and subject to abatement. It’s a brilliant and malicious plan to nibble away at property rights in favor of government control.
The abatement laws will play a significant role in the proposed Gaviota Plan because the plan will create, at the stroke of a pen, dozens and perhaps hundreds of legal non-conforming structures and uses. What happened to Mr. and Mrs. Grove could happen to many of us.
The zoning code regarding abatement needs to be changed. And soon. As the Grove case illustrates, anybody can launch a challenge to a legal non-conforming use, and if three politicians agree, they can take away the "legal" from "legal non-conforming." The result is that the right to keep doing what was perfectly reasonable and legal at the outset is taken away.
Right now, our Board of Supervisors and our Planning Department are moving forward with new laws that will strengthen their power to abate things they don’t like. Next month, our board will consider a new law that says, “If the rights to continue the nonconforming structure are terminated then the structure shall either be demolished or altered so that the structure may be considered a conforming structure.”
Here’s the translation. If you lose your status as "legal non-conforming," you have two choices. You can bring your structure up to all current standards, which in many cases won’t be feasible. Or you can demolish the structure.
This proposal will become a law next month unless the people of this county make their voices heard. The practice of taking property rights from citizens under the guise of abatement of non-conforming use is just plain wrong. It was wrong in Los Olivos, and it will be wrong in Gaviota. It is wrong anywhere.