Monday, November 12 , 2018, 5:32 pm | Fair 65º

 
 
 
Opinion

Harris Sherline: Is Property Ownership a Truth or Variable?

You may think you own your own land, but don't be so sure

Do you actually own your real property? Your home? The apartment complex or commercial building you bought as an investment? Your ranch or farm? If you think you do, consider the following limitations on your ownership:

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline

Using the power of eminent domain, the government can take your property if it wants it for some “public use,” such as a highway, school, post office, etc. Government officials are required to pay “just compensation” for it, but the list of property owners who believe they did not receive full value for their property is very long indeed.

In addition, in a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kelo v. City of New London, Conn., expanded the government’s right of eminent domain to allow private property to be taken for the benefit of another private party, such as a developer, by expanding the definition of “public use” to include generating higher taxes.

Writing about this decision in the Jewish World Review, columnist Jeff Jacoby commented, “If state and local governments can force a property owner to surrender his land so it can be given to a new owner who will put it to more lucrative use, no home or shop in America will ever be safe again.” And, although some states do have laws that limit eminent domain to “public use,” the Kelo decision makes property owners vulnerable to the whim of the government in most states.

Even if your property is paid for, you still have to pay a form of rent — forever (in the guise of property taxes) — to keep it. If you fail to pay, the state will eventually take it from you and sell it at public auction.

Limitations on the use of your land can be forced on you for public benefit by requiring an easement, which is the right to use or cross your land, for such purposes as riding trails, access to the beach, power lines, view corridors, roads and highways, maintenance of public areas. Over the years, in what amounts to a form of legal extortion, the California Coastal Commission has forced many property owners to provide access across their land to public beaches in order to obtain approval to build or improve their homes. In addition, a wide spectrum of laws and local ordinances tell you what you can build, how to build it and what it must look like, how much you can charge tenants (rent control), what you can plant (landscape plans), removal of trees and a host of other restrictions.

In a hotly disputed effort to further regulate farming, the Santa Barbara County Planning and Development Department attempted to impose a requirement that would have made it necessary to obtain permits for certain routine farming activities, such as plowing.

Perhaps the most egregious restriction on property ownership is the approval process that owners must navigate in order to develop or improve property in the county. A glaring example of this was the travail of hotel and Beanie Baby mogul Ty Warner — when he wanted to restore and improve the historic Coral Casino: After suffering through more than 100 hearings over a period of five years and finally obtaining approvals from the county Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors and the Coastal Commission, he was subsequently forced to endure continuing harassment by a relentless succession of appeals and court actions initiated by a few people, who insisted that their ideas about restoring property they did not own should prevail over those of the owner.

Another consequence of the obstacles that property owners and developers encounter in Santa Barbara is illustrated by the statement of a well-known and highly regarded architect, who declared that he will no longer develop projects in Santa Barbara and was reported to have said, “I can’t appear before these commissions any more. This process doesn’t work.”

So, where does all this leave property owners? Unfortunately, vulnerable to abuse.

In Santa Barbara Country, property owners are often treated harshly by an unfeeling land-use bureaucracy. A notable example was the struggle some years ago of the owner of a store on Santa Claus Lane who had to spend endless hours, energy and money just to obtain permission to remove an outdated Santa Claus statue from the top of his building, which was causing the roof to leak badly and damaging the structure. It took more than a year to get an approval that should have taken no more than 30 days.

The answer to the question, “Who owns your property?” is — you don’t! Not really. You may have title, but your control is limited, and it is being further eroded as time marches on.

Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his own blog, Opinionfest.com.

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