A group of homeowners in a beachside gated community has sued the company that owns the land beneath the homes, claiming that "astronomical" ground rent increases imposed last year are unfair and illegal.
A complaint filed in Ventura County Superior Court is the latest salvo in the battle between residents of Seacliff Beach Colony and Ventura-based Seacliff Land Co.
The homeowners say the company deliberately kept them in the dark about the size of the pending hike, allowing owners to pour money into homes whose market value would plummet because of burdensome rent.
The company has denied those accusations, saying the increased rents only reflected the increased property values of a boom time for real estate.
"The legal claims are completely false and have no merit whatsoever," said Rick Hambleton, a partner in the land company, founded by descendants of Ventura County pioneer William Dewey Hobson. "What we have here is a disagreement over the fair rental value of property."
The company's position has not changed since October, when it informed residents of the increases.
"The beach is still the beach," Hambleton said.
For more than half a century, the company has leased land to people who wanted to build or buy homes on a narrow strip bordering the ocean about 10 miles up the coast from Ventura.
While rent for the land increased by an average of 3.9% yearly from 1983 to 1998, the most recent increases more than tripled rent for some residents, according to the lawsuit filed this week. The steep increases shocked residents. Some said they would be forced to sell their homes, but they feared that nobody would buy them once word of the rent increase circulated.
"We have letters from real estate firms saying they won't list anything down here," said George J. Bregante, an attorney who is one of 17 plaintiffs. "They said they didn't want to put themselves in the middle of the dispute."
Bregante said he put $600,000 into an extensive remodeling of his home. The company approved the plans but did not let him know that his monthly rent would jump from $1,155 to $3,287, he said.
"If I had known, I wouldn't have done it," he said. "There's no way I could get full value from the property."
According to the complaint, the company aimed to "collect as much rent as possible in the shortest time possible, and ultimately to force plaintiffs into a box they could not extricate themselves from if they wanted to save their homes."
The size of the rent increase is to be considered by an arbitrator at a hearing in April. Homeowners want assurance that the company will not attempt a similar hike when the lease expires in four years. They also would like the opportunity to buy their lots from the company, Bregante said.
"We want them to get a fair return," he said. "We just think that the amount they're suggesting is way outside the realm of fairness."