Owners facing access issues may have to turn to the courts

Pete and Christine Vall-Spinosa have been unable to access their property at will because they don’t have an easement and their 40-acre parcel southeast of Vallecito is landlocked.

Not only do the Vall-Spinosas have to call an adjoining property owner to arrange for a special escort to visit their own land, they also are finding it very difficult to explore the development possibilities presented by a historic gold mine on the land or the sale of the property.

Many property owners have absolutely no access to their land. That’s a problem, according to County Surveyor Roger Pitto.

“Easements are the most litigated land issue in the state of California, perhaps with the exception of foreclosures,” Pitto said. “Every case is a little bit different.”

That’s not just because it’s highly inconvenient for property owners to have little or no access to their land, but also because a county code section states every property must have legal access or a structure cannot be built on the land.

In 1970, the state Map Act required any property undergoing a lot split or included in a subdivision must have legal access. Properties without legal access are not required to obtain it by state law, Pitto said.

“The Calaveras County zoning ordinance section says all properties must have legal access,” Pitto said.

While not everyone has a problem accessing their landlocked property, even without legal access, some property owners find it almost impossible to reach their own land, especially if they have ornery neighbors. Working with the neighbors is what both Pitto and Willis suggested doing first.

“If you can reach an agreement with your neighbors, which I always advise, go out and walk the ground and come up with a location that’s suitable for your neighbor and provides you with an easement that meets legal law,” Pitto said. “Once you determine a route, you retain a professional land surveyor to go out and survey that route, so a proper legal description can be written. Then that legal description would be attached to an easement grant deed that would properly be filled out by an attorney. Then you record it with county Recorder’s Office.”

Such an easement is most commonly granted in “perpetuity,” Pitto said.

Half interest of the Vall-Spinosas’ 40-acre piece of property was won through a poker game. A mine, which opened in 1883, operated on the property and records state it produced $200 to $300 per day in the early 1900s. One of the ore carts used in the mine now sits on a pedestal outside the Greek Orthodox church near downtown Angels Camp.

Pete Vall-Spinosa said he and his wife, Washington state residents, are intrigued with the possibility of seeing if there is still a large deposit of gold where the old mine once operated.

“Today we have access through the courtesy of the Torlais in Stockton who own a ranch that is dogleg to our property,” Pete said. “It does not surround us but has the best/only/historical access to the 40 acres. The arrangement is we give them a date we want access several days (usually 10 days) before and their ranch foreman has met whomever represents us.”

The Torlais have not been open to drafting and signing paperwork granting the Vall-Spinosas legal access.

When presented with the Vall-Spinosa’s situation, Pitto said they had only one recourse.

“If you’re landlocked and have hostile neighbors, there is a law or process by which one can obtain an easement by necessity. You have to go to court and prove you need an easement by necessity and negotiate where it’s going to go,” Pitto said.

Only an agreement between adjoining landowners or an order from a superior court judge can create a legal easement.

The Vall-Spinosas would either have to prove they had been using a road to access their property for many years and should have the right to continue doing so or they must take an adjoining landowner to court and ask the judge to grant an easement by necessity.

“They must go into superior court with a legal representative and demonstrate to the court they are landlocked and negotiate an alignment with the adjoiners that least negatively affects the adjoiners but still provides legal access to the landlocked property,” Pitto said.

Pitto said judges aren’t necessarily unreasonable when it comes to granting easements, adding there was a recent case in Calaveras County in which the judge granted an easement.

“Judge (John E.) Martin ruled they had a legal right of way across the property,” Pitto said.

Calaveras County Planning Director Rebecca Willis said she is well aware of the problems surrounding easements, noting it’s one of about 20 issues on a long list of things that need to be addressed.

“When somebody comes to us and wants a building permit, we ask, ‘Where is your access?’” Willis said. “And if they don’t have it, we tell them to go talk to their neighbors.”

The state Map Act, passed in the 1970s, requires legal access for a lot split and new subdivisions, Willis said, but many properties were created before the Map Act and do not fall under its authority. She also noted property could be bought and sold without legal access as long as there wasn’t a lot split.

“For any new subdivisions, parcel maps, we make sure there is legal access,” Willis said, adding the reason there are so many landlocked properties in the county is because many of the lines were drawn in Gold Rush times.

“There were mining claims and timber claims in Gold Rush times,” Willis said. “When you have these families who’ve owned land for years, a lot of times they will it to their kids, and things aren’t always documented.”

Papers are lost over time, verbal agreements are forgotten or broken, and land owners can end up without legal access.

When asked how many landlocked properties exist, Willis said she “couldn’t venture a guess.”

Before the housing bubble burst and the housing industry was booming, the issue of easements was a hot issue, Willis said.

“We can’t process a building permit if they don’t have legal access to a lot and our inspectors don’t have legal access. It becomes a really touchy situation,” Willis said. “Things get pretty complicated.”

Pitto said before the Building Department began checking for legal access, land owners would build a house without legal access and when their access was questioned, they would point to their building permit issued by the county.

“They would say, ‘The county issued me a building permit, and they couldn’t have done that unless I had legal access.’ That was a big issue,” Pitto said, adding the county became concerned about legal liability.

The problem got so bad, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors formed a committee several years ago and tasked it with recommending solutions to the issue.

Pitto, who served on the committee before becoming county surveyor, said the recommendation given to the board was to delete the section of county code requiring a parcel to have legal access before a building permit could be issued.

“The board took no action on that, because some of them didn’t like the answer,” Pitto said. “The issue sat dead and the committee was disbanded. The mess is still there.”

When asked why the board didn’t decide to delete the code section, Pitto suggested looking at the IQ levels of some of the board members.

“The department heads I work with have decided they are going to let sleeping dogs lie.”

Luckily for the Board of Supervisors and county officials, “The economy took a dive and a lot of these issues just faded into the background,” Willis said.

When new building came to a sudden halt the majority of the disputes over easements quieted, however there are still folks like the Vall-Spinosas who are trying to find a way to legally access their property.

Pitto said their only recourse is to come to an agreement with adjoining landowners or take the dispute to court. He always suggests making an agreement with neighbors.

“It might be a good idea to find out what they like to drink,” Pitto said with a laugh.

 Contact Joel Metzger at joel@calaverasenterprise.com

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