Tucked away beneath the vast heights of Monterey pine trees sprawls the community of Cambria. Between those towering pines is “the pink house,” which sits beside an unmaintained piece of no man’s land.
Carol Flash took New Times on a tour of her home of 20 years and pointed out land to the left of her house—it’s 10 feet wide and runs the length of her property (and beyond). Just a few steps outside her backyard’s brown fence, she’s walking on a piece of property that nobody wants to claim, and that skinny strip of shrubs and Monterey pine is a pain in Flash’s behind.
Loose dirt slips into shoes and an abundance of twigs crackle beneath grass higher than ankles. Traversing the parcel is difficult for Flash, who has a bad knee, so she holds on to her fence for balance.
- PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- UNSATISFIED: Carol Flash has been living in her home for about 20 years and has only recently realized the hazard that unmaintained debris created for her home.
She realized she had a problem two summers ago when she received a letter from the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) Fire Department. It stated that she was required to clear her property of weeds. At the time, the drought was in full swing and dry debris posed a fire hazard.
She cleared all the dry debris off her property after receiving the letter, but the 10 feet beyond what belongs to her was left unattended. Flash’s gut reaction was to reach out to the CCSD. The district responded to her inquiry with a quick dismissal—saying it didn’t own the land so it wasn’t responsible for maintaining it. With that weed abatement notice in hand, her second stop was Cambria’s fire station, and the answer she got there was no more satisfying than the first.
Flash isn’t the only homeowner in the San Luis Obispo County who has a random piece of untamed, unnamed, unclaimed land next to her property, but she’s the only person persistent enough to try and find out who’s responsible for it. Flash is still awaiting a satisfactory answer.
There are small spots of unmaintained property similar to the one in question throughout the county. Visible on county maps as empty spaces between numbered parcels, they vary in size and shape. Though the county acknowledges that they exist, it doesn’t really want the responsibility for them—and neither does anyone else.
CCSD Fire Department Chief William Hollingsworth told New Times people often ask about pieces of unmaintained land in Cambria. Who’s obligated to take care of them?
“[It’s] an excellent question, one that we have been asked for many years now, with no immediate answer in sight,” he said.
The district has a fire hazard fuel reduction program, which gives the fire department authority to mandate homeowners to clear their land of weeds and tree debris.
Both 2015 and 2016 brought dry summers, and adding the prolonged drought to the mix sparked wildfires throughout the Central Coast. At the time Flash received her letter, Cambria was in danger of having fuel—dry bush and dead trees—turn into fires.
The goal of the reduction program is to reduce fuel for potential fires, as dry weeds, trees, and debris pose a hazard to neighboring homes. Hollingsworth said the program is especially important to this district because of the area that it’s in, where homes are surrounded by open land and aging, dead, and dying Monterey pine trees.
“There’s a real fine delicate line to preserve the forest and keep the citizens of this community safe,” he said.
Hollingsworth said there are about 2,000 property owners who clear their land every fire season, but sprinkled around the community are these 10-foot-wide easements that aren’t being managed because they don’t belong to anyone.
The easements are in place to allow access for public utilities, such as power, water, and sewer lines. But he said the CCSD isn’t tied to the easements and local water or wastewater agencies aren’t either.
“The outcome of this is that property owners are clearing their parcel, while the easements are not getting cleared. They continue to be a very real fire hazard for the community, not to mention the issue of falling, dead, or diseased trees,” Hollingsworth said.
A weekend of heavy rain and gusts of wind in mid-February knocked down many trees and power lines and closed roads throughout the county. Flash was in her house that weekend and heard a loud snap followed by the crash of a tree.
“I just crossed my fingers and said my prayers,” she said.
Just days after that stormy weekend, a large Monterey pine is draped over Flash’s fence. Its long branches with tattered green and brown leaves are dangling in the wind and brushing against the lawn in her backyard.
To the side of her house is a pine with a wide brown trunk and branches that cover the sky—it butts right up to her fence. As she looks up at the tree swaying from side to side, she says she’s very lucky that this tree hasn’t cracked yet and fallen on her home.
Flash doesn’t want the burden of taking down this particular tree because it’s not on the property she holds the title for, so she doesn’t believe it’s her liability, plus it costs a lot of money to take down a tree and dispose of it.
The cost of lopping down a tree varies with the difficulty of removing it, said Blair McCormick of McCormick’s Tree Services in Cambria. An easy removal would be if the tree can be chopped and felled while someone yells “Timber!” with glee—as in, there’s nothing in the way to worry about. A more tedious job is when a tree is between homes and must be hacked down in chunks.
He said tree removals range from $100 to $5,000, but it really depends on the situation.
“How much room do you have to work with, how large is the tree, are there wires near it, and the type of tree,” he said. “The circumstances are huge.”
In 2015, tree removal was a common practice in Cambria as a fungus was overtaking the town’s Monterey pines.
Art Trinidad, the building division supervisor for SLO County’s Planning and Building Department, said there was tremendous loss of trees at that time due to pine pitch canker, lesions that can obstruct waterflow within a pine tree and potentially kill it.
The infected trees were dying and Trinidad said those trees could have been a flashpoint if there was a wildfire at that time of that dry season.
But, in Flash’s case, the trees next to her property didn’t get checked out or removed—so she was dealing with the overgrown shrubs and grasses next to her home, a tree that could crash right onto her house, and a potential fire hazard that could destroy her property. She had already approached the CCSD and its fire department and figured if the district didn’t own the land and wouldn’t take responsibility for clearing it of hazards, then maybe the county would. But that’s not the case.
Glenn Marshall is the development services engineer for SLO County Public Works and he said he’s heard of community members reaching out to their local officials about unassigned pieces of land before. He also said that the county doesn’t own these random easements because of a decision made by the SLO County Board of Supervisors almost a century ago.
- FILE PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- DISEASED: In 2015, a fungus that infected Monterey pine trees were killing off an abundance of trees in the area and adding to the then fire hazard.
In January 1930, when supervisors created a subdivision map of Cambria, they rejected certain roads, streets, and public ways (pedestrian walkways). This means those strips of land weren’t acknowledged on Cambria’s subdivision map or as part of the county. The roads are visible on the subdivision map as empty space, but they weren’t given a title number. The 10-foot easement next to Flash’s home is one of the pieces of the map that wasn’t accepted.
Marshall said that the county didn’t accept the easement next to Flash’s property line for three reasons: It doesn’t provide a public benefit, the paper road (a road that exists only on a map) was not constructed to county standards, and it lacks a sufficient right of way.
These little lots owned by no one aren’t just in Cambria; they’re all over the county. Marshall said he could easily compare it to alleys in Oceano, which are about 20 feet wide and lie in between homes.
Oceano Community Services District general manager Paavo Ogren said that these alleys are also referred to as antiquated subdivisions because Oceano was mapped out decades ago. He said that area homeowners who have these walkways, easements, or alleys next to their property have generally chosen to maintain them.
He said he’s heard of residents running into trouble with local agencies because they’ve built fences that go beyond their property lines. For instance, homeowners installing a fence on uncharted land next to their parcel hit an underground pipe used for water or wastewater. The local agency then has the homeowner remove that fence back to the property line.
“If someone encroaches on the land then sometimes public agencies get involved but in other situations they don’t,” Ogren said.
There isn’t an interest, he added.
Plus, technically, property owners are considered to own half of the untitled land next to their property.
Marshall said in the case of Cambria “pink house” owner Flash, though the 10-foot width of land next to her property is not included on her deed, Flash has the right to half of the easement. The county technically recognizes her property line as 5 feet past her actual titled land.
“The general thought is that plated easements are also not legal parcels, therefore the adjacent abutting property on either side owns the underlying property to the center of the easement,” Marshall said.
Templeton, Nipomo, and Shandon also have alleys in between homes that lack ownership. And if those little parcels are cleared of brush and debris, Marshall said, it’s because homeowners have taken matters into their own hands.
But Flash isn’t convinced. She said she doesn’t want to touch the property, because it simply isn’t hers—it’s not listed on her title and there’s no mention of her having the right to half of the unnamed land, either.
Flash reached out to SLO County 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who represents the unincorporated communities of San Simeon, Harmony, Los Osos, Cayucos, and Cambria, and the city of Morro Bay. Flash said he seemed interested in her issue at first, but her inquires were communicated through Gibson’s legislative assistant, Cherie McKee.
McKee had the same answer for her as everyone else. Through an email to Flash, she said the county did not accept the 10-foot easement years ago, and therefore, the county has no obligation to maintain it.
“My job is to get the answers to questions folks have. Sometimes those answers are not the answers folks are looking for,” McKee said in the email.
She also sent Flash the text of Civil Code 845, which states that “the owner of any easement in the nature of a private right-of-way, or any land to which any such easement is attached, shall maintain it in repair.”
According to the code, the easement is attached to Flash’s property, so she has the right to clear it out or take down the tree next to her fence, but she’s not required to do so.
McKee pointed out the section of the code that states if an easement is owned—shared in between neighboring homes—by more than one property owner than the cost to maintain it can be split.
McKee spoke with New Times over the phone and said that their office hasn’t had any other complaints about 10-foot easements, so she isn’t aware of other people with this type of grievance in the 2nd District.
“I think if there were a handful of people or more people in our district saying something about this, then I think it would be more appropriate to bring it to the attention of the board,” McKee said.
Gibson told New Times this situation isn’t likely to change. He said that when an area is subdivided, whether in Cambria or another part of the county, certain portions of the land are left without a purpose.
In Cambria’s case, Gibson said the 10-foot easements were created for public use, so residents could walk on these pieces of land at their leisure.
“As a public agency, we don’t want to accept them or really can’t accept them until we can be sure we can maintain them,” he said. “The county is not in a position to accept it at this point because we just can’t take care of all those easements.”
The county doesn’t want to take responsibility for maintaining the easements because there are simply too many to care for. In Cambria’s case, it was a matter of how the Board of Supervisors decided to divide the land decades ago, and without a huge community outcry, there isn’t change in sight.
Flash said she has been sitting on this issue for two years and is feeling frustrated with her district and county.
“To me, our elected officials are supposed to change laws as time passes and more information becomes available or current trends need to be addressed,” she said.
Contact Staff Writer Karen Garcia at firstname.lastname@example.org.