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. 

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.

(12) comments

KookSkywalker

The bottom line is, there are just too many people. There is not a housing 'crises', there is an overpopulation crises. If you want to be part of a movement that makes a difference in the world - don't have so many children, or better yet, any children at all. But, people will be people, and the population will continue to grow and add to the woes of mankind and our planet. I don't know why anyone would want to bring another person into this world knowing full well the issues around it. Heavy statement for a Monday I suppose. : )

Tanny

My dream is to buy a home or build one on the ocean. So, I have been searching the coast side for some time. I then discovered the West of Railroad area in HMB. I was told there were “paper streets” out there but I walked out there several times and searched everywhere under every rock, and I found no “paper streets”. What I did find and walked on were dirt city streets. I love to research sometimes I can get a bit Sherlockian. I have been reading a lot of public records including the court files. I did discover they are in fact legal dirt streets, and the city adopted them as such in 1959 when it was incorporated.

I search for the antiquated subdivision. I could not find that either. I did find an early subdivision out there. And I found the cute old railway station. And I researched and found the same identical early subdivision on the east side of Railroad. They are identical, both subdivided in about 1905. There is no difference because once upon a time a train came down Railroad Avenue.

The west side of Railroad is not a 32-acre parcel of land waiting to be subdivided. It’s a 32-acre area of land already legally subdivided, with nothing left to be subdivided. Big material difference. Taxes have been paid out there for over a hundred years from my research. I looked at more of Half Moon Bay, other than the new subdivisions, it is really a city of early subdivisions.

If you read the LUP, and the orders from the coastal commission, they are very clear. The order is to allow homes to be built in the early subdivisions in the city of HMB and stay out of the rural areas outside of the city’s boundaries. When you read Senate Bill 330, it’s clear that our Governor and the California Senate has ordered that for a five-year period slow growth laws are not applicable because we have the state’s worst housing crisis ever. And it orders that existing undeveloped lots within cities be built upon to provide housing. There is no not in my backyard exception to this law. Were all in this together. In fact, under Senate Bill 330 and Senate Bill 9 you can build two homes on each lot to help resolve the housing crisis.

So I deepened my research. 149 Miramontes, which is just on the east side of Railroad Avenue sold for $4.1 million. Zillow has at about 4.5 million now. Mr. Hyman is quite right. These lots are worth $1 million. I would love to buy one. If anyone has one for sale, I’ll give you proper disclosure there worth $1 million please write in and leave your name and phone number. Don’t sell them to the city for $20,000. That will make my dream come true!

I read a lot about the red-legged frog. They’re very cute. I dissected a frog in my science class in high school. But doesn’t everybody know that frogs come from tadpoles. Their habitat is in a substantial pool of water so they can breed. There is no water in the west of Railroad area it’s as dry as a bone. After 35 years of claiming, that the very dry land west of Railroad, was their habitat, if you read the latest LUP, the city concedes now it’s not their habitat. So, this was just a frog fairytale, sadly used to deprive humans of their sensitive habitat, their homes, meanwhile the red-legged frog and their child tadpoles had their sensitive habitats in substantial pools of water elsewhere outside of the west of Railroad area. And humans and their children are without their sensitive habitats, homes, and are living in the streets.

Speaking of fairytales, I researched the city’s budget. They do not have the money and will never have the money to condemn the entire west of Railroad area. It’s not financially feasible. There already is a beautiful passive park out there, Poplar Park, the city got that land from the county for free.

Steve Hyman

John, renters have nothing to do with eminent domain and the real estate term of a “taking”. My comment about a loud minority is based on many conversations I’ve had with people over the years. I don’t feel most people care about all the local issues unless it directly impacts them like schools. Most are focused on their families and jobs and trying to enjoy life.

And as to why I feel affordable housing are just feel good political talking points but the reality of our severe annual growth limits, limited water, traffic, anti growth sentiment and sky high real estate prices make it unrealistic in the near term.

John Charles Ullom

Build vertical.

Steve Hyman

I can't speak for the hundreds of people who own the PUDs in HMB. But the vast majority of the sellers I met have owned these parcels for generations, many before HMB was even a City. One elderly gentleman came to me a while ago with 15 parcels he inherited from his grandfather in the N Wavecrest area. His grandfather paid around $50 foe each lot but the property taxes with all the bonds for sewer and schools made them to expensive to hold and were sold for around $10-15k each. Another family built their home on acreage in another PUD in the 1930s and around 50 years later the City zoned their property so they couldn't expand their home by 1 square foot or if it burned down, it couldn't be rebuilt. Why. It was the only home in HMB with that sort of restrictions.

Its really the long term landowners in HMB who are being punished by the change in zoning policy. But I will say that if you buy property and you are told you can't use it for anything, even camping or grow vegetables, that's not right.

But some of the policies here are done for punitive reasons to stop development at all costs like the Railroad Ave conservation easement purchase for several million dollars to further thwart development.

I know when I speak with buyers I explain the risks and pitfalls of building here and how over time the anti-growth attitude of what I call the loud minority, will go to extremes to stop development,even including arson.

But its the community's attitude that has scared builders away which probably suits many people just fine. So when I hear now all the talk for affordable housing, not going to happen.

As to the buyers that I dealt with, it was a gamble and worth the risk, especially if they could build. If not, they were out a small amount of money that wouldn't change their lives.

As to the eminent domain lawsuit, and I'm not a lawyer, but I don't think the City has a good case as this isn't for a highway, school or some important reason. Its to protect the bluffs from erosion and global warming that will take a few hundred years to reach Gearing's properties and a few hundred more years to reach the homes in Alsace Loraine.

The fact that the State Court thinks Gearing's case has merit proceeding to trial and the Federal Court wants to see how the State rules to me speaks poorly against the City. The City should dust off their insurance policy and see if they will bail them out like they did on Beachwood, otherwise they will be writing some big checks with our money.

John Charles Ullom

"...of what I call the loud minority..." -- Steve Hyman

Wrong. Way way wrong and false. They are not the minority. They are by far the majority. that is why they keep electing "Not In My Back Yard" anti affordable housing types.

Their excuses are different but their motivation are the same. People who own property don't want to live around people who rent property. That is why we have "Resist Density" and "Save Red Bellies" types working together to prevent any more affordable housing from being built. Anywhere. It doesn't matter if they are from the Coastside, or the other side, or the Red side, or the Blue side.

Steve. You can pretend all you want that the bad guys are Muller, Patridge, Ruddock, Grady, Alifano, Eisen, Rarback, Kolwalczyk , or Fraiser. But they are just symptoms of the ugliness.

The bad guys are your customers. The bad guys are us. Resist Density and Save the Frogs are just slogans covering up the ugliness of our self centered self righteous notions.

"So when I hear now all the talk for affordable housing, not going to happen. -- Steve Hyman

You got that right. See why in the above rant.

Yosemite

In 1999 or thereabouts, with specific funding from the Coastal Conservancy, City Manager Blair King engaged Biotic Resources to delineate wetlands on the West of Railroad PUD (containing an antiquated subdivision). Only the parcels that had the permission of the landowners were delineated. The result was a wetland map that would make it very difficult to draw up a specific plan for the area that would create enough development to justify the infrastructure cost.

Hard to understand where the "fraction of what they are worth" comes from. An intrinsic aspect of eminent domain proceedings is to determine the correct value of the property being taken.

The fact that it's public policy to avoid development in that area has been in the Land Use Plan and Local Coastal Program for at least 3 decades. Reading comprehension problems perhaps?

Steve Hyman

This is a lawsuit that is long over due. The City with its punititve PUD zoning has been depriving hundreds of property owners of their rights for decades making their land almost worthless without just compensation. This is the legal definition of a term in real estate called a taking.

Not only have I been writing on this abuse for over 20 years but I have sold over 30-40 of these PUD lots in both Railroad and North Wavecrest. Many years ago, these lots were sold as highly speculative and sold at 5-10% of what a buildable lot would go for at the time. Buyers were made aware that these were long term holds with no guarentee of future development. That's why they sold at a steep discount to buildable lots cause it was a gamble.

In full disclosure, I have represented Tom Gearing many years ago and sold one of his choice parcels for around $90,000 over 15 years ago. Today, that parcel which backs up to City land, could easily be worth $1.5 million or more and with a house on it based on current Alsace Loraine sales north of $5-6 million.

But was has been so hard to observe is the abuse these landowners have been subjected to such as not being able to fence in their property, grow vegetables, camp on it. But they were allowed to pay full property taxes and school bonds, sewer bonds etc without enjoying use of their land.

Its my opinion that the City made a huge tactital error in trying to use eminent domain for no good reason to take these properties for a fraction of their worth. Now the City is fighting lawsuits in both State and Federal Courts spending who knows how much of our taxpayer money on something that the public already tresspasses on for free.

And if the City looses, they are going to be opening the floodgates of litigation from the hundreds of PUD owners from north of Ocean Colony to Miramar. This could make the Beachwood lawsuit look like a parking ticket by comparison.

Its rreally hard to understand why the City takes such a litigious attitude towards its citizens. Its even harder to understand how they can loose so many lawsuits costing us taxpayers millions of dollars that could be better used for our enjoyment.

As I have said countless times HMB is a great place to be a land use attorney going against an oppopent who has such a dismal batting average.

John Charles Ullom

Steve. I want to agree but your argument is the one of the best the city can make:

" Buyers were made aware that these were long term holds with no guarentee of future development. That's why they sold at a steep discount to buildable lots cause it was a gamble." -- Steve Hyman

If that is true, and it probably is, why should I feel bad for some people who invested in highly speculative property with no guarantee of being allowed to develop it? They gambled and lost. Per your own words. If I were the city, I'd make you a star witness.

"Its rreally hard to understand why the City takes such a litigious attitude towards its citizens. " -- Steve Hyman

No, it isn't. Be they Lefty or Righty, Blueish or Reddish, Bleeding Heart or Redneck, property owners don't want renters among them. Doesn't matter if they are a Trumpanista in Montara or an ObamaGirl in Half Moon Bay. Property owners don't want renters, not even their children, to live amongst them. I am willing to bet that you Steve, would object to some high density development next to your castle and that your lifestyle will trump any commitment you have to private property rights. I say that because I have not noticed you railing against self righteous Resist Density cohort. I assume you know where their commitment to Private. Property Rights ends.

Your customers Steve, are the primary reason why nobody can build anything on the Coastside, or in Redwood city, or in San Jose, or Contra Costa, or you name it.

They all prefer not to live around people who don't own property. They might pretend it is traffic but traffic isn't the big deal the locals make it out to be. They might pretend it is crime but crime rates way down on the list of peoples concerns. They come with slogans like Resist Density and Green Foot Hills. They have theirs and are desperately threatened by those who want the same. It isn't even racism. They dislike poor White Trash as much as they dislike other flavors.

There is a solution. Our Golden Goose is kiling us with too many eggs. There are way too many high paying jobs. We need to send some of those jobs elsewhere. Send 'em Texas, or Utah, or Minnesota. I don't care. Just stop sending them here.

Now we both know that if the price of housing were to drop 20% that many property speculators will be slammed. Most of them have leveraged their properties to the max. They have to collect the increase3d rent in order to make the payments on the property and their toys. You should have seen the look on the property owners when I suggested that we keep building until the price of housing drops 20%. They all looked like they saw the ghost of bankruptcy.

August West

“ buying the land for public use would protect a significant amount of habitat”

That’s demonstrably false. There is no critical habitat there. The City just wastes more and more taxpayer funds on litigation. Good for the landowners.

This City Council hates private property rights. Except their own.

John Charles Ullom

+1

We need more housing. The city council should work with the owners to build small affordable houses. Instead of paying lawyers, pay the owner/developer to build housing that the locals need.

Tripp3

Thanks for reporting on this.

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