“Mr. and Mrs. Grove, we’ve decided that you can’t live in your house anymore.” That’s what the Groves, a Santa Ynez couple who are entering their elder years, were told last Tuesday by our county Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Peter Adam

Supervisor Peter Adam

The issue before the board involved a farmhouse in Los Olivos that had been built in the 1880s. As land use regulations evolved over the years, the house became “legal non-conforming,” meaning that the house could stay if it remained in its existing condition and was used in the same way. Sometimes this is characterized as being “grandfathered in.”

A neighbor who was dissatisfied with how the Groves were using their property seized on a provision that allows legal non-conforming use of land to be “abated.” Abated means that you’re no longer “grandfathered in.” Under established procedure, the initial decision-maker was the planning director, Dr. Glen Russell. He ruled the Groves could continue to live in the house that they owned. In fact, the Groves were informed in writing by P&D staff that they could live in or rent out their home. The neighbor did not like that answer and appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

The appeal did not involve anything physical about the house. It was about how the house had been used. Had it been a guest house? Or a farmworker quarters? Or a single-family residence? In my view, the neighbor had not shown facts sufficient to deprive Mr. and Mrs. Grove of their basic property right.

I am frequently critical of the planning staff. But this time, Dr. Russell and his staff had it right. My three South Coast colleagues, normally inclined to follow recommendations of staff, did not agree. They voted to deprive Mr. and Mrs. Grove of a valuable property right — the right to live in the house in which they had a financial and emotional investment of 17 years.

When a political majority can vote citizens out of their own residences, something is fundamentally wrong.

I moved to support the Groves’ position and deny the appeal. In making my motion, I remarked that allowing political bodies to take away property from individuals amounts to absolutely nothing more than “mob rule.”

Supervisor Salud Carbajal seemed to agree with me on the facts. He said: “It’s really about looking at the facts of this circumstance. Quite frankly, I tend to agree with you on this.”

But then Supervisor Carbajal went in a different direction with remarks that underscored our differences in philosophy of government: “But the way you’re couching everything, you’re going to some kind of philosophy that I can’t espouse, believe or agree with.”

He then joined the other two South Coast supervisors to vote that the Groves’ use of their house as a home would be terminated. The Groves would have three years to move out.

We supervisors make decisions all the time, and we quickly learn not to take the results too personally. But this vote was different. Everyone in the room understood that something significant was happening. A hush descended. The vote was taken. The meeting quickly adjourned. The only sound remaining after adjournment was the weeping of a woman who had just lost her home at the hands of a political body.

We have erected a system of governance under which uses of land that are perfectly lawful become, by majority vote, non-conforming. You, like the Groves, can end up having second-class rights in your own house. And it gets worse. If you make the wrong move — like move out for 12 months — you may face further loss of rights that might even lead to demolition. If you think I’m making this up, read your Land Use Code. It’s all there.

If you want to see the face of tyranny, watch the video of Tuesday’s meeting by clicking here. Watch the last 30 minutes. It should turn your stomach. You will not hear the weeping of Mrs. Groves because the audio has been faded out. The sound of the anguish that your county government has caused has been silenced.

Next: The Gaviota Connection

Peter Adam represents the Fourth District on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.