Presented at the
Eleventh Annual National Conference on Private Property Rights
Property Rights Foundation of America, Inc.
Albany, N.Y. - October 13, 2007
First, I would like to thank my wife, Terri. Her support, inspiration, and tolerance has been phenomenal.
I also want to thank Carol LaGrasse for inviting me to the conference and for her guidance and encouragement. Without her stalwart support, I would not have the fantastic resources that have helped me carry the property rights flag in Mendocino County and Gualala.
Do we really have carpetbaggers and privateers in the Twenty-first century?
If you think these terms are old ones, they are. The term carpetbagger was coined in 1868 to describe a Northerner in the South after the American Civil War.
Recently, Webster's dictionary added the following definition:
Carpetbagger: An outsider; especially a nonresident or new resident who seeks private gain from an area often by meddling in its business or politics.
The definition of a Twenty-first century privateer is a bit more complex:
A privateer is nothing more than a pirate with a license.
That term goes all the way back to 1664. It describes an armed private ship licensed to attack an opponent. Robert Morris, the first American millionaire, became wealthy by privateering. George Washington owned at least one privateer ship. A privateer was an early sort of commerce raider, interrupting trade. Privateers were of great benefit if you were a smaller power, or one facing an opponent dependent on trade: they disrupted commerce and hence an opponent's revenue. Privateers forced their opponents to deploy resources to protect trade.
Privateering was a way of mobilizing groups of people and resources without spending public money. Today privateering is a way of mobilizing environmental non-government organizations without spending public money. Take a look at the California Coastal Commission's website and click on the link that says "Marine, Coastal and Watershed Resource Directory." It lists 103 resources in Mendocino County, or as I characterize them "Twenty-first century privateers."
It starts with the Acorn Naturalists, and includes organizations such as the Banana Slug String Band. Believe me, google it! Also, The Central California Council of Diving Clubs, The Coastal Land Trust, The Environmental Defense, the Information Center for the Environment, the Walt Disney Company, and of course the National Opossum Society.
Of particular note is the absence of any property owners or property owner interest groups or even chambers of commerce. This disparity exemplifies the lack of representation of property owners in Gualala and Mendocino County.
I'd like to tell you a bit about Mendocino County and Gualala.
Mendocino County is about sixty miles north of San Francisco. It's 3,510 square miles, which is about 75 percent the size of the state of Connecticut. Mendocino has a population of about 85 thousand compared to Connecticut's 3.5 million. Connecticut, which many of you may consider a semi-rural state, is 29 times more densely populated than Mendocino County. There were about 47,000 registered voters, about 48% Democrat, 28% Republican, and 16% no party affiliation. It takes more than three and a half hours to drive from one corner of the county to the other. The roads have names ranging from Scenic Highway 1 also known as the Dramamine Highway and Mountain View Road and, boy, do you get a mountain view. Don't get me wrong, I get a big kick watching traffic reports on television knowing my commute will be on some of the most spectacular roads and scenery in the entire world. A sunset drive up Highway 1 where Terri and I live is a portrait by a higher power. There are only four incorporated cities or towns in the county; 70% of the population lives in the unincorporated areas such as Gualala.
In the year 2000, Mendocino County voters approved Measure G, which called for the decriminalization of marijuana when used and cultivated for personal use. It passed with a 58% majority vote. It's now legal to grow medical marijuana on your own private property in Mendocino. Our county sheriff now issues zip tie tags identifying legal plants in an effort to regulate what is estimated by some to be a $10.5 billion per year crop. That is three times the combined revenues for the local timber and vineyard economic sectors.
Many of you are familiar with agriculture practices: pesticide regulation, green belt zoning and all the other valued agricultural accouterments. The medical marijuana growers are dealing with private property rights issues they never expected. How do we deal with the property rights issues for marijuana? I don't have an answer. However, we must keep in mind that we are engaged in a historical process, embedded in the gray area of the law that requires balancing the rule of law, the will of the voters, human rights of patients, neighborly concerns and the private property rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
Now, I would like to tell you about my home town, Gualala. It's about three hours' drive above San Francisco at the southern edge of Mendocino County. It sits directly on Highway 1, perched on the bluffs overlooking the Gualala River and the Pacific Ocean. Gualala was first established in the 1860's by the construction of a hotel, saloon and a lumber mill. Logging the local redwood trees after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake helped populate the area when huge amounts of lumber were needed to rebuild the city. Gualala's literal translation is from a Porno Indian word meaning "water coming down place."
Terri and I moved to Gualala in June of 1995. We fell in love with the area in spite of the fact that the nearest Taco Bell and Macy's are two hours away over the Dramamine Highway. Gualala serves as the commercial center of the region, providing many of the goods and services to northern Sonoma and southern Mendocino counties, and is considered the heart of the Redwood Coast. It is estimated that over 30 percent of all visitors to Mendocino County traverse through Gualala. The Gualala River constitutes the border for the Counties of Mendocino and Sonoma.
Just to the south of Gualala in Sonoma County lies a private development called The Sea Ranch. Approximately a quarter of the units are occupied by full-time residents, a quarter are rental homes, a quarter are second homes, and a quarter are empty lots. There are approximately 2,300 lots.
The Sea Ranch development is largely responsible for creating the current political and zoning issues along California's 1,150-mile coastline. The plan by its owners to shut off public access to ten miles of Sonoma Coast in the early seventies prompted environmentalists to put Proposition 20 before the state's voters, which eventually spawned the California Coastal Act and the Coastal Commission. If you want to know how California's beaches and viewsheds "belong to the people," thank The Sea Ranch.
The sign leading into our little paradise announces "Gualala Population 585" and gives the elevation as 67 feet. The truth is that there are 2,400 mailboxes at the post office and a post office box waiting list three pages long. And, the Gualala area is considered to also include the areas outside the core downtown, which are considerably above 67 feet. Gualala has a town plan approved by both the County of Mendocino and the California Coastal Commission. It took over ten years to complete and was codified in 1999. The commercial area that most people consider Gualala is about a mile in length and has well over 100 businesses. Most of the business owners are not property owners.
I did not wake up one day and declare that I wanted to make a change to Gualala. My involvement and concerns came slowly and methodically. After moving to Gualala, Terri and I worked, played and enjoyed living in what we still call paradise. There had been the town plan meetings, sewer district meetings, Municipal Advisory Council meetings all covered in our local paper, the Independent Coast Observer. I must admit to you that I didn't attend many of them. When I flushed my toilet it worked, and the rest of Gualala seemed fine.
I would like to relate several of the events that helped shape my role today. First, how the town undergrounding plans sparked and organized property rights movement. Second, the hijacking of our town plan by carpetbaggers and privateers. And third, how the heck does a patch of lawn within a commercially zoned area become a wetland habitat?
Ten years after we moved to Gualala a headline in the local paper announced that undergrounding of the utilities was to commence in the spring. A meeting was scheduled to discuss the project with the affected commercial property owners. Terri and I own a commercial property. We could be affected. This was the meeting that changed my attitudes.
It started innocently enough. The transportation director for the county was there. The county attorney, the representative for the utility company, and the representative for the phone company. About forty people with properties in the downtown commercial area were there. The attendance was a record from what I understand.
The lead agency announced the meeting to order and immediately said that there was a problem with placing all the utilities in the same trench in the middle of the highway. But they had a solution. The utility representative then rose and unrolled a plot map of the affected properties and placed it on the wall in front of the audience. She then began explaining why the electric lines could not be placed in the common trench in the middle of the highway. It was because the company has an existing easement regulated by state law that could not be abandoned because it would lower the value on the company books a violation of the California Public Utility Commission's rules.
She then took a black marking pen and like nails on a chalkboard, drew a screeching line from one end of our town to the other about a mile. The line went straight through the video store, rooms in two motels, the market entrance, and the gardens in front of several businesses. It eliminated the entrances to two restaurants. The line was entirely on private properties. On top of that, the undergrounding was to extend just halfway through the town. The town plan boundary was over a half mile away. It seemed fractured. It was fractured because it was convenient and expedient for the agencies in charge. The woman at the front of the room proudly exclaimed that, if only the property owners would give up ten feet of land, we could be underground in less than twelve months. Additionally, if the town wanted street lights we would need to plan for the lighting standards on individual properties. When asked how it was to be paid for, the response was another enlightenment. Street lights were not a problem, we were told. The properties that benefited from the lights would have the charges automatically tacked onto their utility bills. Of course, the commercial property owners not the business owners were to be the beneficiaries; so we were the ones paying for it.
If you had been there you could have heard a pin drop.
I waited for someone to say something. I was in the front row and raised my hand. I asked the presenter, "Have you asked the property owners about this?" No, it was just a proposal and that without an "851 exemption" this was the way they had to do it. It was a dismissive response that I did not appreciate. As the local internet provider, I had my laptop on and connected. I looked up the 851 exemption. She was right. 851 said that the utility could not "give up" assets without a public benefit approved by the Public Utilities Commission.
I raised my hand again and asked why they had not applied for the 851 exemption. The answer was that it might take an additional year to process and that the project had been delayed already. They were ready to go and this was the best recommended solution, chimed in the county counsel. They were adamant and insistent that it was a great plan. I turned to the crowd of silent owners and asked, how many of us would be willing to wait a year and have the utility go in the middle of the street so we would not have to give up ten feet of our property? Everyone in the room raised a hand.
The meeting was pronounced over and several days later the Gualala Commercial Property Owners was formed. Two months ago we were granted the 851 exemption and the undergrounding has been extended to the town boundary.
During this period our county transportation authority had been awarded a grant. It was a time for celebration! The grant was to pay for a consultant to hold meetings in order to begin the transportation design for the downtown plan. You know sidewalks, median strips, plantings, turn lanes, and bike lanes.
The new property owners' group was suspicious, but agreed to go through the process. We all wanted a nice downtown, too. The grant specified three meetings called Charettes. And the first two meetings were great. About fifty people attended. Most attending were property owners and local residents interested in the development process. In addition, two committees were formed: a technical group consisting of the government agencies and engineers and a citizens committee open to anyone that was interested. When we asked if a representative of the property owners would have a place at the technical committee table we were told no. But we could send someone to attend as an observer. It seemed strange that the technical committee would not have a representative of the properties that were the subject of the grant.
We should have known. Between the second and third meeting, it was announced that the consulting firm had run short of money. Instead of a development meeting as planned, we were going to have an open public meeting to finish off the process. Almost 100 people showed up. And, to our amazement, the organizer began showing a slide show of different town elements and asked for a show of hands of who wanted what. There was only one problem. Most of the people were from out of the area and had not attended the first two meetings.
Everything from the prior meetings was outvoted. The bike lobby attended and changed the bike lane features, the trail lobby attended and changed the trails and sidewalk features, the grant people attended and changed the streetscape. None of the attendees that constituted the majority were residents of our town. Our meeting and town plan had been hijacked by carpetbaggers and privateers. The results of that meeting two years ago are now front page news in our local paper. I've brought copies of it published last week. It's a great article announcing with great aplomb: "Downtown planning grant OK'd!"
In our town plan approved by the Coastal Commission and the county are areas designated commercial. One of those areas is a small parcel owned since the 1930's by the Bower Family. In the seventies John Bower, Sr. built an office building with a community conference room. For forty years, John Jr. has been mowing the quarter-acre lawn adjacent to this building. Parking has been a problem; many community meetings overflow the parking into the street. John decided last year to add sixteen additional parking spaces. The lawn seemed like the perfect place. He applied for the permit, and waited for what he thought would be an easy project. The senior planner arrived to pre-inspect the property and recognized wetland grasses mixed into the lawn. He promptly ordered a botanical study. If John wanted to proceed, it would cost thousands to study wetland grasses in the lawn. The owner questioned the planner. Were we really trying to preserve a quarter-acre wetland smack in the middle of an established commercial area? When told that the botanical study would be required and paid for by the owner, he quickly withdrew his application.
I have witnessed enough. I am involved.
Carol asked me to provide the lessons that I have learned. First, if you sit back and do nothing, that is just what will happen. Raise your hand and speak out.
Second, in the course of finding solutions and seeking answers, I have discovered that camouflage is a powerful tool. When visiting authorities and county offices dress as they do (e.g., tie, jacket, etc.) Believe it or not, it makes a difference. The internet is powerful; infiltrate and get to know your opposition. Go to Yahoo, Hotmail, any online mail server and create a new e-mail address, sign up for mailing lists, visit their website, be an active participant in your opponents' goals. You do not have to disclose who you are. You will be amazed at the amount of information. Get to know your county personnel; visit and ask them what they are doing about issues in your community. Let them know there is a face to your community besides your opponents.
Seek out mentors at your local level. The most unassuming personnel could be your best ally for vital information. Vigilance is the key, don't assume anything. Research the property owners in your area. Business owners are not necessarily property owners, nor are business owners' interests the same as property owner's interests.
Follow the money. Know your county budget and how it is established for your community. As Alexander Hamilton said in 1781, "The first foundations of government are finance and revenue, they are the sinews of power."
Build alliances with similar interests. Remember, when you are all in the same boat, only the size of your oar is the difference. I often describe my role this way. I am the smallest property owner in our boat. All the other property owners have much bigger oars, but we all sink or swim together. Your representative may not represent you. Remember, it takes a majority vote at most boards. Talk to the other reps from other districts; get to know them.
I know this sounds like a plug, but I swear John didn't pay me a thing! Purchase John Berlau's book Eco-Freaks. Read it and then send it to a representative. They will appreciate it. I know I did.
Lastly, watch out for the twenty-first century versions of carpetbaggers and privateers at your local public meetings. Just because a resident in another county has a post office box in your town does not make them a local resident!
Thank you for your time.