AFTER THE FIRES
Pains over property lines
Flaws found in parcel boundaries; rebuilding delayed

By Elizabeth Fitzsimons
STAFF WRITER

April 28, 2004

JOHN GASTALDO / Union-Tribun

Gary Darnell walked on the foundation of what used to be his home on Iron Springs Road in Harrison Park. Darnell has a permit to rebuild his home, which was destroyed in the Cedar fire, but the issue of questionable property lines has come up.

HARRISON PARK – When a firestorm burned through this tightly packed mountain enclave, many people lost their homes and belongings. Now many residents are finding they lost something else as well.

They discovered that what they thought was their land actually may belong to their neighbor, and vice versa, because property lines aren’t where people thought they were.

Rebuilding in Harrison Park, where about 170 homes were destroyed by the Cedar fire, is largely stalled as a result. Residents say only one property owner has secured a building permit and is ready to begin rebuilding.

Many homeowners are faced with questions like this: Should they build on their old foundation, even though part of their home sits on what is technically their neighbor’s property? Or should everyone agree to live with the boundaries that had been informally recognized before the fire?

The issue has caused much confusion and frustration in this quirky community south of Julian, where cabins were crammed into little nooks on winding roads off state Route 79.

Tonight, the topic is expected to attract a crowd at a town hall meeting, which county Supervisor Dianne Jacob will attend. The meeting starts at 7 p.m.

An aide to Jacob said yesterday the supervisor does not plan to address the boundary issue at tonight’s meeting, because it is so complex. Instead, Jacob plans to schedule another meeting, probably for next week, at which property boundaries will be the only topic on the agenda.

JOHN GASTALDO / Union-Tribune

Gary Darnell and his wife have guardianship of their grandson, Jimmy Danieli (above), and they don’t want to spend next winter in a trailer while they wait to rebuild in Harrison Park. They lost their home to the Cedar fire.

One stymied Harrison Park resident who plans to be at the meeting tonight is Gary Darnell. Darnell, a bus driver, lost his home on Iron Springs Road and has a permit to rebuild. He and his wife have guardianship of their 3-year-old grandson, and they don’t want to spend another winter in a trailer.

“There’s always been rumors and talk that your neighbor owns 20 feet of your property and you own 20 of theirs,” Darnell said.

“We always just let it go. Unless you have a survey done when you’re purchasing, you just assume what you bought is legitimate.”

Darnell built a two-story addition to his home last year and the issue of property lines never came up. It has now, because a property owner down the road has questioned boundary lines, resulting in a domino effect.

“The majority, 99 percent of us, want to just accept what we had before the fire and get on with the building. But you have a couple that if the property can be adjusted 20, 30 feet to their benefit, well. . . . ”

Paul Kellogg lost three homes in Harrison Park. Kellogg shut down his real estate business to concentrate on rebuilding.

Kellogg said the county told him he couldn’t rebuild his garage on Twin Oaks Lane because one-third of it would be on his neighbor’s property. The garage had been there 25 years, he said.

“They wanted it set back three feet from the property line,” Kellogg said.

“When I bought the property 15 years ago, it was just like this.”

Kellogg’s neighbor told him the garage was straddling their property line, but nothing was ever done about it.

“Now the county is coming along and saying I have no right to build the garage there, and that’s not right,” Kellogg said.

The community’s roots – and its confusion about property lines – date to the 1920s and R.E. “Rube” Harrison, a landowner from Bonita.

Harrison, who died in 1941, divided his land into 20-foot by 82-foot parcels and sold them as camping spots for $10, according to “History of San Diego County Land Surveying Experiences,” a book by Curtis M. Brown and Michael J. Pallamary.

Eventually, people built cabins on their property. For $5, they were able to have their parcels monumented, which meant stakes were put down to mark the boundaries. According to Curtis and Pallamary, Harrison did not hire the best surveyor. His angles were off.

“The northernmost parcels, as staked were about 40 feet off their legal descriptions,” they wrote.

Bob Adam, a Julian-area historian, summed it up like this: “You have tent sites themselves that grew into homesites that were not recorded properly due to bad legal descriptions.”

Harrison Park residents “are a pretty cohesive group and yet they are pretty independent,” Adam said.

“But because of their independence, it has prevented them from coming to adjudications. Unless you can get everyone to agree, it’s not going to pass muster under law. Thus far, they haven’t been able to to get total agreement.”

Reverting to the pre-fire understanding of property lines would be the best solution, said Teresa Manley, a director of the Julian-Cuyamaca Community Resource Center.

“We need to get everyone to agree to put the fences and borders right back where they were and then go to binding arbitration so that it can’t be reopened in the future,” Manley wrote to county officials earlier this month.

“It is going to be impossible to find one new survey that will please everyone.”

In an interview, Manley said some people were concerned that if the boundaries were to be moved, it meant they had been paying taxes for years on someone else’s property.

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