Supervisors Hear the Pleas to Protect Property Buyers

Too late for many, but nonetheless necessary, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors last week approved a package of sweeping reforms intended to protect low-income land buyers from swindlers peddling questionable titles to marginal property. The reforms stemmed from the case of developer Marshall Redman, accused of selling hundreds of unsophisticated Latinos land in the High Desert--land that came with a host of legal problems, from illegal subdivisions to phantom titles.

As federal and local officials work to find ways of accommodating those allegedly swindled by Redman, the county is acting swiftly to prevent the tragedy of a repeat. However, any praise for the reforms deserves to be tempered with criticism for the inexcusable foot dragging that allowed the alleged scam to continue for so long. Despite more than 100 inquiries and complaints to half a dozen government agencies, authorities took 13 years to file a lawsuit against Redman.

In the meantime, people who bought land from Redman were being cited by inspectors from Kern and Los Angeles counties for zoning and health violations. In some cases, the inspectors even went so far as to force some people off the land they thought they owned. After stories by Times reporter John Glionna, Supervisor Mike Antonovich--whose district includes many of the home sites--called in the county to plug the holes in the system that allowed these kinds of dubious transactions.

Among the programs approved by the county: a bilingual education program that alerts buyers to suspicious transactions, a set of guidelines for improving communication among the myriad government agencies that regulate land use, and the designation of the Department of Consumer Affairs as the lead agency in collecting complaints. Those are good first steps, but other elements must also be in place to make the reforms effective and enforceable. Toward that end, the board also referred three proposed ordinances to the Regional Planning Commission, including a requirement that sellers provide proof to buyers that land was properly subdivided before a sale. In addition, a county task force recommends that all land sale contracts be recorded so agencies can track suspicious transactions.

Some from the real estate industry contend that the proposed changes only add another layer of hassle to an already bureaucratic process and will further delay legitimate transactions. They argue that the solutions endorsed by the supervisors are too confusing to be effective. That may be true. But that's why proposed laws and amendments go through the public hearing process, where potential problems can be hashed out and fixed. The momentum of the past several months should not be squandered by sending the recommendations back to the drawing board. It took 13 years to recognize the system is broken. It should not take another 13 to fix it.

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