About that time, Sommers figured he needed a lawyer. So he hired land-use attorney Craig Sherman. “Craig saved me $20,000 right away,” says Sommers. “His research showed that the road running through my property, the one the County interpreted as only a driveway requiring that I get an easement, was in fact Old Stage Coach Road built in the 1800s.”
On January 19, 2006, Sherman wrote to the County of evidence that “legal access is available to the Sommers property via the Old Stage Route [Potrero to National City]…as granted by the County Board of Supervisors since 1872.” On a visit to Sherman’s office, he shows me a response to his letter eight days later. It came from the County Department of Public Works and admitted the accuracy of his research and that there always was legal access to the property.
Sherman was not as successful in correcting the illegality of the Sommers’s subdivision. He first wrote to owners of the Stabler Trust asking that they correct a problem they had caused. That problem, he wrote, “makes use of the [subdivided] properties impermissible until such illegality is cured.” But after promising cooperation, the Stablers have stalled. In the meantime, Sherman filed a lawsuit against them, as the County Planning and Land Use Department suggested. Only he went a step further and included the County as a codefendant. He maintained that the County had a responsibility to enforce the Stablers’ adherence to the Subdivision Map Act. Also, noted Sherman, that law has a provision designed to protect people who buy land that has been illegally subdivided.
Sherman thinks that the County then reversed its course. “Suddenly they talked like they had made a mistake and wanted to work with us,” he says. The planning department’s Jarrett Ramaiya arranged a meeting with Sherman and Sommers for the purpose of discussing the two sides’ differences. Sherman was looking forward to a settlement out of court. But he had to cancel at the last minute and asked for a new date for the meeting. Ramaiya, other county officials, and the Stablers’ attorney met on the original date anyway.
Subsequently, the County decided that, in order to build on his land, Sommers would have to apply for his own certificate of compliance. “That would have cost me a great deal more in fees and penalties,” Sommers tells me. “And two other owners who bought parcels stemming from the Stabler subdivision would have been hit with the same penalty. I couldn’t do that.”
As a result of Sommers’s refusal, on January 7, 2007, the planning department issued its “intention to record a notice of violation.” The violators included the Stablers, Paul Sommers and his partner, and the two other subdivision landowners.
The Sommers lawsuit will come to trial in April. Craig Sherman will argue that in granting Sommers several permits without revealing the subdivision illegality, the County has acted in bad faith. And as soon as Sommers purchased his property, the County Assessor’s Office gave it a parcel number for the purpose of collecting new taxes. Sommers has paid those taxes since 2003. “It raises interesting questions about County assessment practices,” notes Sherman. “Would you assign an assessor’s parcel number to an illegal parcel? Doesn’t assigning the parcel number and collecting taxes on the property legitimize the owner’s stake in a government-recognized piece of property?”
In the meantime, the recent Harris Fire raced over Sommers’s land, burning the shed, several old cars, and a pile of clear-cut oak logs he was saving for firewood. And the bank has foreclosed on Sommers’s Encanto home. After he vacates in another two weeks, he plans to live in a trailer on his Potrero land until he can build.