Lots of Controversy : Property: Homeowners challenge park district's claims to slices of their yards.


Residents whose hillside homes overlook the rugged hills of Marr Ranch and the manicured greens of Simi Hills Golf Course have an added and contentious attraction in their backyards these days: survey stakes.

The stakes in back of 71 homes in the Texas tract indicate property boundaries for the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District, boundary lines that lop off chunks of gardens, saw off corners of decks and cut through tiled pools.

Park district officials, who have not yet taken an official position on how to rectify the alleged encroachments onto parkland, say only that the law forbids them to give away public land. A decision is expected in February.

Residents in the Texas tract, a middle-class neighborhood at the city's northeast end built 20 years ago, are banding together to hold their ground, hoping there is strength in numbers.

They are reserving such drastic measures as legal action or a recall effort as a recourse of last resort, but plan to make their position known by appearing en mass before the park district board.

"It's our only hope if we all stay together," said Fred Haptonstal, a retired Los Angeles police officer, whose backyard slope would be shortened by about eight feet.

He looked out over the golf course he plays on two days a week, and pointed to a spot he had terraced and planted to prevent erosion--an area now considered park land.

"They should lease us the land," he said.

The residents have mixed responses to district assertions of property boundaries. Some want the district to sell them the land, other say things should be left as they have been for 20 years.

But Frank Ross, whose backyard pool is halfway into park property, takes a different tact.

"Let them take it, I don't want it," he said of the disputed property. "I bought half a pool. But I'm not buying" the park land.

Rick Johnson, a spokesman for the park district, said there is room for negotiation and that the district wants to do what is right for everyone.

"But state law says it is illegal to have a gift of public funds," he said. "There are 71 homes up there, but within the district there are probably 45,000 homes, and 120,000 residents. What do those people say?"

Gary Moss, who owns property five miles away near Santa Susana Park, organized the Texas tract group because he has been locked in a similar dispute with the park district for three years.

About 1,500 feet of his side yard is actually park property, but it was fenced in more than 10 years ago by a previous owner, he said. He has been ordered to vacate his property but the order has not been enforced since the Texas tract issue came up.

"So I formed this group because I need them like they need me," he said.

At issue in the Texas tract is the western boundary of the park district-owned golf course, which abuts the backyards of residences along meandering Texas Avenue.

The backyards, which sit at the edge of a bluff overlooking the golf course, extend varying distances from the houses, then drop off on a steep slope. Many of the backyard fences do not follow the bluff line, but extend down the slope some distance.

The property discrepancies came to light almost a year ago after one neighbor complained that another neighbor was over-irrigating and causing erosion, park district board Chairman James L. Meredith said.

District officials went out to check on the issue and discovered that the property in question was park property. That led them to check other property lines as well, surveying the land and staking out park boundaries.

"Once you're made aware of a situation, you have to respond to it," Meredith said.

Although many of the houses have changed hands several times since their original sale in the mid-1970s, the property line discrepancies were not uncovered during their sales or title searches, the homeowners say.

But that is not surprising since it is not customary to order a physical survey of land on a tract home sale, said Debbie Rodgers Teaseley, district manager for Coldwell Banker Town and Country for the Simi Valley area.

"Title companies give the dimensions of the property, and on a tract home, title has been transferred for years," she said. "That's just not something Realtors get involved with."

For some houses, only a few feet of property on the slopes are in dispute. But for others, the encroachment onto parkland has been more significant.

Don Bradley, who bought the property in 1975 a year before his house was built, said he would lose only a few feet in the bottom corner of his yard. But he is amazed the park district even wants the land in question, which he and other homeowners have cleaned and maintained over the years.

"They've never mowed or cleaned it," said Bradley, a record producer. "It's absolutely worthless, no-good land they are talking about."

At Miriam and Louis Sanchez's house, the boundary cuts through their pool and takes off about 15 feet on one side of the yard they thought was theirs. Their rose garden is also on the wrong side of the boundary.

"I just fell in love with the backyard," she said. "It was one of the features that drew me to the house."

The Sanchez family bought their home nine years ago with the pool already installed. It was a legal and permitted improvement, city officials told her.

"We'll see what kind of stand these public servants take against their own constituency," she said.

Meredith said most of the park surveying is finished, but the issue is being considered by a board committee. Although the final decision and report are still two months away, Meredith said he hoped to have the item on an agenda sooner to have dialogue with residents.

"We need all the facts before the board makes a decision," he said. "But I do have compassion for the homeowner and I would hope that we can work with them," he said.

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