For almost 40 years, Fred Gruner paid taxes on 23 acres of hilltop land
in Lakeside that on a clear day boasts grand views of the Coronado
KOHLBAUER / Union-Tribune
In 1962, Fred Gruner bought 50 acres north of the
San Diego River and south of the Silverwood wildlife sanctuary. Now, he wants
help from Congress because part of it doesn't exist.
just one problem: The land doesn't exist.
to a federal mapping error more than 100 years ago, the acreage exists on paper,
but not in reality.
the 85-year-old former construction company owner is seeking redress from Congress,
hoping that Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.,
will rectify a government mistake that has robbed him of the retirement income
he banked on.
no fault of mine, an erroneous federal government land survey has caused me to
lose much of my land that I thought I had owned for decades," said Gruner,
who wants the federal government to give him land somewhere else or pay him for
the land, which could be worth as much as $460,000.
don't want to make a profit from the government. I just don't want to lose."
1962, Gruner spent $18,000 for nearly 50 acres in Lakeside, just north of the
San Diego River and south of the Silverwood wildlife sanctuary.
was in his 40s then a World War II veteran and a father of three. He hoped
the land, which he bought from a private party, might someday cushion his retirement.
best of the land, he thought, was atop the hill, just beyond his Willow Road home
23 acres that could be reached only by four- wheel drive. It was secluded
and peaceful up there, he said, and you could see as far as the Coronado Islands.
in 1978, Gruner learned that he and his neighbor might both own the 23 hilltop
acres. Gruner began to investigate.
visited the county tax assessor's office. They sent him to the U.S. Bureau of
Land Management in Palm Springs. That led him to the bureau's office in Sacramento.
He even wrote a letter to its headquarters in Washington, D.C.
than 20 years after Gruner started investigating, in February 2000, the bureau
finished a new survey of Gruner's land.
conclusion: In 1881, a surveyor placed the 23 acres in the northern end of the
property Gruner bought. But five years earlier, in 1876, another surveyor placed
the same land in a different parcel that eventually ended up in the hands of Gruner's
paper, Gruner and his neighbor each owned the 23 acres. In reality, only the neighbor
did, because that deed predated Gruner's. Gruner was left with about half the
property he thought he owned.
contacted Hunter, who persuaded Department of Interior lawyers to investigate.
The attorneys concluded that the bureau is not legally obligated to reimburse
many as 77 other property owners in the area may have been affected by the mistaken
survey, although only one other person besides Gruner has complained. The bureau
and Hunter's office would not provide that person's name.
1881 surveyor, Gruner joked, probably "had a gallon of tequila on his mule,
because he created a lot of land that didn't exist."
county tax assessor's office removed the nonexistent property from the tax rolls
and recently refunded Gruner $138 the amount of his most recent tax bill.
Gruner said he has yet to be compensated for all the other years he paid taxes.
it is unfortunate for Mr. Gruner," said bureau spokeswoman Jan Bedrosian.
"But it has always been the federal government's position as difficult
as that may be that we shouldn't be in the business, 100 years later, of
compensating people for survey errors that should have been recognized many years
said most reputable title insurance companies would have known that the errors
are documented in a 1988 book called "Lay
of the Land: The History of Land Surveying in San Diego County."
Gruner said he didn't have title insurance.
wrote his legislation, HR 3954, which would force the bureau to compensate Gruner
for his loss either with other land in San Diego or Imperial counties or
with money. The bureau says the land is worth $10,000 to $20,000 per acre.
House passed the bill in September. It now sits in the Senate.
a well-intentioned citizen . . . seeks to purchase a piece of land, he ought to
be able to trust that the existing federal government survey of the land is reliable
and that the responsible federal agency stands by their work," Hunter said
at a hearing of the House Resources Committee.
the hearing, bureau Deputy Director Jim Hughes said, "The BLM does not have
the authority to convey land or give money to private parties in compensation
for an error such as this."
in California and the West have run into similar problems.
the West was settled, you can imagine how rapidly people wished to get land from
the federal government," Bedrosian said. "Unfortunately, shortcuts were
made during the survey process."
bureau's Lance Bishop, the agency's chief land surveyor in California, said complaints
such as Gruner's arise "a half a dozen times every year."
the people are occupying land they don't own," Bishop said. "Or it's
not where they thought they owned it."
said bills similar to Hunter's have compensated a few landowners, though most
have not been so fortunate.
Congress hurries to wrap up work before its winter recess, Hunter and Feinstein
are pushing for a Senate vote on the bill. A Hunter spokesman said it is unclear
if the congressman will reintroduce the bill if it fails to pass this year.
Gruner has five grandchildren. His wife is 10 years younger than he is, and he
wants her to be financially comfortable after he dies.
kept fighting and even went up there to Washington," Gruner said. "I
want to leave as much for my wife as I can, and as few headaches as possible."