City buys more land west of Railroad
Litigation over ownership of undeveloped parcels in the West of Railroad neighborhood in Half Moon Bay remains ongoing even as the city continues to purchase undeveloped lots.
Earlier this month, the city acquired four more parcels in the West of Railroad area with the intent to protect local habitats, manage coastal access and mitigate erosion. The land is marked as a planned development area by the city’s Land Use Plan, and the city is taking steps to retire other lots there. The city paid $120,000 for four parcels two weeks ago and will use Lot Retirement Funds and traffic mitigation payments from the developer of the Ailanto Pacific Ridge project for the purchase.
Not all deals have gone smoothly. The city has filed eminent domain actions to acquire seven other lots, six of which belong to Thomas Gearing and his son, Daniel.
The Gearings first filed a lawsuit against the city last year, and have now filed a new cross-complaint in San Mateo County Superior Court, claiming their property was subject to unconstitutional “precondemnation activities.” They allege that the city, through its policies in its Land Use Plan, has prevented development in the West of Railroad region by diminishing the property value.
The Gearings also filed a case in the U.S. District Court of Northern California, but a federal judge abstained until the legislation progressed at the Superior Court level. The Gearings are appealing the decision in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In February, a San Mateo County Superior Court judge effectively gave Gearing the green light to proceed to trial against the city, should he choose to, on several federal causes, including inverse condemnation, violation of the equal protection clause and violation of the due process clause. Additionally, Gearing plans to seek compensation by proving his property lost market value due to the precondemnation damages.
The city’s Land Use Plan requires would-be developers to undergo an extensive and time-consuming process to create a specific plan, where applicants would have to remap and replot all 130 lots on the land. This would amount to a taking, and only the city has that kind of authority, Gearing argues. The plan would have to detail roads and infrastructure, open space, public recreation and commercial recreation, follow California Environmental Quality Act requirements and be approved by the city. Gearing is also alleging the city
published maps showing
the family parcels in a regional park or open space, and that the land contained sensitive wetlands without evidence.
In total, the undeveloped area contains 32 acres of legally subdivided zones containing approximately 130 owned lots. The area was legally subdivided in 1905. Gearing and his son’s parcels are 269 feet and 435 feet from the edge of the bluff, respectively.
In October 2020, the Gearings submitted an application to build residential units on their property. Gearing rejected the city’s offer of $91,000 for the six parcels in January 2021, and the city filed the eminent domain action in San Mateo County Superior Court two months later.
Gearing also believes the city’s appraiser underreported the land’s fair market value because it compared other property sales in the West of Railroad area, which are also subject to restrictions outlined by the LUP. The city, in collaboration with the Coastside Land Trust, has also established conservation easements along the railroad corridor between Kelly Avenue and Seymour Street, with two gaps, one between Central Avenue and Myrtle Street and another between Poplar and Metzgar streets.
A city staff report states that buying the land for public use would protect a significant amount of habitat while preserving coastal access and recreation through a managed retreat of the Coastal Trail due to ongoing erosion. The city may incorporate the land into its Poplar Beach Gateways Plan, which is meant to create an erosion and mitigation plan for the bluff, improve parking and beach access, and work on the easterly realignment of the Coastal Trail between Poplar Street and Kelly Avenue.