July 31, 2008

Carmichael Man Gives Up 4-Year Battle to Subdivide Property

By Ramon Coronado, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

Jul. 31--After more than four years of fighting government agencies and his neighbors, Don Langley has been defeated -- and the Carmichael Creek Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance has prevailed.

"I've lost," he said. "I'm not bitter. It's part of life."

Langley's long-standing battle ended earlier this month when Sacramento County supervisors accepted a drastically slashed version of plans to subdivide his three acres of property.

From eight parcels, he went down to five, then finally to three lots, the maximum allowed under existing zoning for the property.

"The way the market is now, I can't sell," he said. "I'm going to wait for another two to three years and see what happens."

Over the years, the retired firefighter's bid to rezone his undeveloped land in the semi-rural area of Carmichael was watched closely by many.

Environmentalists feared that if Langley were allowed to subdivide under new zoning, it would lead to high-density housing that would ruin the ambience of the neighborhood.

Speculators also watched, seeing opportunities in a sinking housing market to gobble up large lots, rezone into smaller parcels and redevelop later when the market recovers.

Langley's property is on the north side of Grant Avenue near the street's end, just east of California Avenue.

He and his wife, Ann, live on the property in an older, modest single-story home. He bought the land 25 years ago for $140,000 as an investment for his retirement.

He said the property initially was a dumping ground and that the cleanup has been costly.

Over the years, he has collected receipts that show he has taken 71,900 pounds of trash to the dump. he said.

Langley originally wanted to subdivide his land into eight home sites, including one he called his "dream home" on a slope overlooking the other parcels.

But since the property falls within the Carmichael Creek Neighborhood Preservation Area where rezoning is largely prohibited, county officials persuaded him to pare his proposed subdivision to five lots.

The county staff was in favor of the five-lot plan, but the Carmichael Old-Foothill Farms Community Council rejected it last fall as a violation of the area's preservation ordinance, which took effect five years after Langley bought his property.

When the county supervisors approved the preservation ordinance, they said it was in the best interest of area residents and the county to preserve the large lots of rolling terrain, oaks and wildlife.

The ordinance, which protects the area on Carmichael's east side bordering the American River, generally restricts development to no more than one house per acre, but there have been exceptions.

When the Carmichael council rejected Langley's five- parcel subdivision, about 80 people came out to oppose his plan.

Many of the critics belonged to the Carmichael Creek Neighborhood Association, comprised of more than 100 residents.

"I was forced to go down to three (lots). I had no choice. That group had all the power," Langley said of the homeowners association.

Langley said he needed the five-parcel rezone to pay for the project's utilities, drainage, road construction and other infrastructure improvements.

He maintains that he has paid more than $70,000 to regulatory agencies, which over the years have demanded multiple environmental reports.

"I've lived here for 25 years, and, basically, I am being forced to move," Langley said, expressing doubt that he can sell the other two parcels and still be able to build a home for himself.

Anne Berner, a member of the Carmichael Creek Homeowners Association for 15 years, said passage of the preservation ordinance had the widespread support of Carmichael residents, not just those within the protected area.

"Most people in Carmichael want to preserve what's left of the rural nature of our neighborhoods," Berner said.

Richard Humphrey, the association's president, said Langley's proposed subdivision was a direct challenge to the ordinance.

"The idea behind the ordinance is: stop changes in zoning that allow parcel division into tiny lots," Humphrey said. "Mr. Langley mounted a pretty serious challenge."

The high number of people who came out to oppose Langley's plan was an indication that the case was followed by many for different reasons, he said. The case was of keen interest to other homeowner associations seeking to preserve special areas in their communities, Humphrey said.

"We were quite concerned that he would set bad precedent. Once you allow one exception, how do you stop another exception? It opens up a whole box of problems," he said.


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