Open Space near Central Avenue

The city of Half Moon Bay plans to assert eminent domain over six parcels it says it needs to manage the retreat of the Coastal Trail. Adam Pardee / Review

The Half Moon Bay City Council last week voted to acquire another parcel of undeveloped land in the West of Railroad area. The city said the taking is necessary to deal with erosion and runoff, and to maintain public access while managing coastal habitats and the retreat of the Coastal Trail.

The council unanimously voted to officially start the eminent domain process. A staff report stated that the three property owners, Barbara Gemanis, Martha Stagner and Harriett Lewis, hadn’t responded to the city’s offer at the time of the City Council meeting last week. The staff reports indicated that Claudia Gulasch is the heir to Barbara Gemanis.

The city’s appraisal valued the parcel at $15,000. City Attorney Cathrine Engberg said the full compensation will be determined in a later court trial. The parcel is one of 130 individual lots spanning 32 acres. The grassland overlooking the bluffs west of the city has a long history of ownership dating back to 1905 when plots were legally subdivided. When the city incorporated in 1959, it accepted the mapped streets in the West of Railroad area as legal streets and the lots as legal parcels.

The city’s 2020 Land Use Plan estimates that the bluff face in the area could recede as much as 200 feet in the next 79 years if no mitigation efforts are taken. That would mean the cliff edge would be inside the West of Railroad area. The city says if there are efforts to prevent erosion, the bluffs could recede by about 100 feet.

The city is purchasing the land through its Lot Retirement Fund. In 2008, as part of a deal to get a Coastal Development Permit from the California Coastal Commission for 63 new units in Pacific Ridge, developer Ailanto Properties agreed to pay the city $2.8 million meant for buying and retiring other properties to mitigate the traffic impacts of the project. The city has spent $200,000 of those funds to date.

Since 1985, the land has been designated as a planned development zone by the city, and property owners face steep barriers to any development because of its status as a Regional Public Recreation space within the city. Last week’s decision comes as the city is facing a lawsuit filed in federal court in March after exercising eminent domain to seize six other undeveloped parcels in the West of Railroad area owned by the Gearing family.

Thomas Gearing owns five lots; his son Daniel owns one. Gearing said he bought his first parcel in 1993 with the intent to build a single-family home for his family. Under federal law, the city has the right to take property for public purposes but must provide proper compensation. Court documents show the Gearings are alleging that the city is violating their Fifth Amendment rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution by devaluing the property’s market value and placing arbitrary and unconstitutional barriers to his right to property.

According to the lawsuit, the city’s LUP places significant and unreasonable barriers on property owners and would require Gearing to replot and redesign the legally mapped lots and prepare a specific site plan for the entire West of Railroad area, not just his property. The city’s LUP does allow for some development in the area, but it’s limited to agriculture, public access and habitat restoration.

Last March, the Gearings rejected the city’s appraisal of $91,000 for the parcels. The Gearings believe the full market value of all the properties in the West of Railroad area is in excess of the city’s budget.

August Howell is a staff writer for the Review covering city government and public safety. Previously, he was the Review’s community, arts and sports reporter. He studied journalism at the University of Oregon.

(1) comment

Cid Young

The Gearings lawsuit is simply the camel's nose under the tent.... Does the City have enough capital set aside to buy every landowner's parcels in that west of Railroad area, or in the Wave Crest area too, for that matter?

The City has been merrily collecting the property taxes from all of those lot owners for these many years, but, then someone wants to develop said parcels, now the City hits them with an eminent domain lawsuit! Meanwhile, they have placed additional burdens on those property owners by placing other planning restrictions on the lots, as well. All in the name of 'cliff Retreat"

Hubris might be coming. Time will tell.

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