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City Looking Up Ways to Seize ‘Encyclopedia Lots’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1910, land was cheap in this seaside city, particularly in the eroded gullies northwest of downtown. So Encyclopedia Americana bought some tracts of “worthless land” and gave away small plots to anyone who bought a $126 set of books.

Though the venture was not a huge marketing success, some 600 lots were handed out to people across the nation--enough to give modern-day Huntington Beach a chronic headache.

For years the city has struggled to identify the owners of these “encyclopedia lots” and buy those properties that have stood in the way of construction projects. After following a paper trail that can crisscross the country, the city often is frustrated by owners unwilling to sell.

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One property owner who is reluctant to sell is Barbara Harmon, whose lot near the corner of Ellis Avenue and Edwards Street is in the way of a street-widening project. Harmon is fighting the city’s attempt to acquire by eminent domain the land she inherited from her grandfather.

“My grandfather was a Russian immigrant who lived in Bisbee, Arizona,” Harmon said in a recent interview. “He bought the encyclopedias to educate himself. And he always told us to hold onto the land that came with the encyclopedias. He was sure the land would one day be valuable.”

True to her grandfather’s instructions, Harmon, 52, a laboratory technician who lives in Burbank, has dutifully retained the land. She said the city’s offer to pay $10,000 for the lot is inadequate because “the land’s worth much more than that--you can see the ocean from there on a clear day.”

The city contends that $10,000 is a fair price given that the lots are too small to build on. The plots average 25 feet by 112 feet.

The value of the tiny encyclopedia lots is currently an issue before Orange County Superior Court. Whatever the worth of the lots today, the land had little value when the encyclopedia company obtained it for its premium offer.

“The city was very isolated in those days, and the land that the Encyclopedia Americana bought had poor topography and wasn’t considered usable,” said Dan Brennan, director of real estate services for Huntington Beach.

“So the encyclopedia company undoubtedly got the land very cheap. This happened between 1910 and 1914. During those years, you could buy a leather-bound, 18-volume set of Encyclopedia Americana for $126 and with it, get a lot in Huntington Beach.”

The Encyclopedia Americana currently is published by Grolier Inc. of Danbury, Conn. Violet Manon, director of corporate communications, said that Grolier purchased the encyclopedia firm in 1945 “and we have no archives in our company that say anything about those lots.”

Huntington Beach City Atty. Gail C. Hutton said tracking down owners of the small lots has been a persistent problem.

“Heirs are all over the nation, and many of the lots have never been through probate after the original owners died,” she said. “It’s a situation we call ‘title blight.’ ”

The encyclopedia lots are in tracts scattered around central and northwest Huntington Beach. Some of the lots adjoin what is now the city’s Central Park. Other lots are adjacent to the Holly-Seacliff area, a $1-billion residential project recently approved by the city.

Brennan said there was never any construction on any of the encyclopedia lots because of their size. “The lots are just too small,” he said. “The assessed value of some of the lots was so low that the county never even bothered to put some on the tax rolls.”

But to many people, in scattered corners of 1910-era America, owning a lot in a beach community in California became a source of family pride.

“My grandfather was very proud of the land that came with the encyclopedias,” Harmon said. “I can remember hearing him talk about that land when I was a little girl. He always thought the oil under the land would be very valuable, and for a while the family did get some oil royalties, but they ceased drilling there in the 1970s.”

City officials say some other encyclopedia lot owners also got small oil royalties after 1920, when oil was discovered in Huntington Beach.

Barbara Milcovich, archivist for the Huntington Beach Historical Society, said that a few people bought up encyclopedia lots just before the oil boom and thus cashed in on the investment as the gushers came in. One such shrewd investor was Thomas Talbert, a farmer, land salesman and one-time county supervisor who bought some lots in 1919. Individual lot owners got little oil money, however, according to city officials.

The oil came and went, but the dreams did not die. Many owners of the encyclopedia lots believed that the rapidly rising residential land prices in Huntington Beach would ultimately bring them riches. Some lot owners recently told a City Council meeting that they were therefore shocked and insulted when the city this summer offered them only $10,000 per lot.

Margaret Lindsey, a Huntington Beach resident who is co-owner of four contiguous encyclopedia lots, said that two similar lots sold last summer for $62,500 each. “The assessed value of the lots is also higher than $10,000,” she said.

City officials disagree. But Orange County Superior Court Judge Eileen Moore on Oct. 11 denied the city’s request for eminent domain on seven encyclopedia lots. Hutton said the judge demanded a newer appraisal of the land, which the city is providing.

Hutton said she doubts the new appraised value will be much higher than $10,000, and noted that the City Council last week purchased two encyclopedia lots from willing sellers for $10,000 each.

The city is seeking seven encyclopedia lots along Ellis Avenue in order to widen it. Some grading and bulldozing of privately owned encyclopedia lots on Ellis prematurely took place in September, infuriating some property owners who are balking at the city’s effort to purchase the lots through eminent domain. Officials said the contractor thought the city had already obtained the lots in question.

The widening of Ellis--a key east-west thoroughfare in the Holly-Seacliff area--may come to a halt if the city cannot get title to the encyclopedia lots.

Brennan, who is in charge of the city’s land purchases, noted that the problem with encyclopedia lots goes on and on. “We’ve been trying to get these lots ever since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here 23 years,” he said.

The city has purchased about 220 of the 600 encyclopedia lots over the years but it will never seek to get them all, Brennan said.

“We’re only trying to buy the lots we need for the widening of Ellis and the lots in the Central Park area,” he said. “We’ll just leave the rest.”

And those remaining lots, according to Hutton, will never be usable because city zoning laws make them too small ever to be built on as individual lots. She added that lumping together two or more lots may make building possible. But she said that most would-be private purchasers run into the same problems as the city in trying to secure a clean title to the land.

Unfazed by such pessimism, some lot owners, including Harmon, tenaciously hold on to the encyclopedia giveaway land of 80 years ago.

“I know my grandfather would turn over in his grave if I gave up without a fight,” Harmon said.


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