Stop the Land Scam

California's booming economy over much of the last decade provided a golden age for buying what's left of the Golden State's wild lands before developers could bulldoze it. State and federal governments have joined with land conservancies and private foundations to contribute billions of dollars to preserving the forests, deserts and coastline that draw awed visitors from around the world. But the drive to save the last best wild lands is falling prey to a real estate scam that amounts to legal extortion. The state Legislature can and should put a halt to these outrageous practices as soon as it returns from its summer recess Aug. 20.

The shakedown scheme was disclosed by Times writers Kenneth R. Weiss and John Johnson in an article focused on efforts to preserve large portions of the 83,000-acre Hearst Ranch surrounding the famed Hearst Castle at San Simeon in San Luis Obispo County. They reported how an arcane document known as a certificate of compliance, obtained through the use of ancient property records, can be used to manipulate development rights in ways that no on ever intended.

This process may even allow Hearst Ranch owners to, as the Times reported, "take an isolated, largely worthless lot on a mountainside and move it to the beach, where it will be worth a fortune." This is made possible largely through two court rulings in 1992 that created a massive loophole in the state's Subdivision Map Act. Hearst lawyers have compiled land records going back as far as 1852 to obtain certificates of compliance to allow the ranch to be subdivided into 279 parcels.

The Hearsts and others attempting to manipulate the law this way still need authority to actually start construction. Their real goal, however, may not be to build houses but to create the threat of immediate development as a means of bullying foundations and others eager to preserve the land into paying a hugely inflated price.

If this were a hustle aimed at a rich private buyer it might suffice to say, "Buyer beware." But in this case California's natural legacy is at stake, and to shake down governments, the Coastal Conservancy and philanthropic organizations such as the Packard Foundation is a scandal.

One source said there was talk of proposing legislation this year to close this loophole, but a bill apparently did not get introduced because the energy crisis dominated the agenda. Fortunately, this matter should not take more than a few days to fix. It must be done.

In what some see as an odd new role, Bruce Babbitt, an ardent protector of wild lands as Bill Clinton's secretary of the Interior, is now consulting for the Hearst Ranch and defending the use of these certificates. This is the same man who, as president of the League of Conservation Voters, would quote the aphorism, "We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors but borrow it from our children."

As things now stand, that part of the Earth known as Hearst Ranch--and others like it--may be held hostage by a slick legal gimmick.

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