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Paradise lost on the North Coast

Landowners say they bought prime real estate in the '60s. The state says they were swindled on wetlands.

January 27, 2008|Noaki Schwartz | Associated Press

CRESCENT CITY, CALIF. — Her home is just a camper parked atop a dune, but to Lois Holzworth it's paradise on the remote North Coast, where great blue herons strut in the lagoon outside her door and the ocean crashes on a beach nearby -- all for $50 a month.

It's not without shortcomings, though: Holzworth, 79, goes without electricity and running water, and for three months of the year rising waters threaten to swamp the portable toilet and rusted Oldsmobile that sit in a gully below.

"At night when it's all flooded and the water gets in here real deep, it just reminds me of a monster from the deep -- it's a dull kind of spooky roar," Holzworth said.

A flood, however, is not what is likely to drive Holzworth to drier land. The narrow sandy spit she occupies is the subject of a battle that has gone on for decades between bureaucrats hundreds of miles away and unwitting landowners who thought they had bought prime real estate in the 1960s.

In the eyes of the state, Holzworth is a squatter living in the middle of one of California's most important coastal wetlands -- a 12,000-acre area called the Tolowa Dunes State Park and Lake Earl Wildlife Area.

To some landowners, she is staking her turf as a tenant on land that was legally subdivided, developed and sold.

Pacific Shores, as it was dubbed by a developer who sold lots on the cheap to far-away dreamers, is a limbo land where the state has been able to prevent development but unable to get owners to give up their lots.

Owners have been squaring off with the Coastal Commission almost since the Coastal Act of 1976 was passed, partly in response to Pacific Shores and similar undevelopable subdivisions.

About half a dozen times a year, commissioners grapple with some new legal entanglement thrown up by owners so bent on building that they've spent upward of $2 million on lawyers and environmental studies.

"People have this need to feel they own this piece of ground so they will jump on it no matter how unrealistic it is, even if they'll never really be able to build on it," said Peter Douglas, the California Coastal Commission's executive director. "I think they were swindled, I really do."

If the commission and other public agencies have their way, a subdivision that never developed much beyond a network of paved streets could be on the road to officially being reclaimed by nature.

In the 1960s, the Tamco Development Company purchased more than 760 acres of land that sat between the ocean and joint Lakes Earl and Tolowa. The ranching family who owned the property would periodically breach Lake Earl and let it drain into the ocean to keep the grazing land dry year round.

The two lakes are joined at a narrow bend and form a lagoon. The water rises and falls with the rains and tide, spilling over sandbars and into the ocean several months of the year.

The mix of fresh and salt water provides habitat for at least 15 threatened species such as the western snowy plover, the Oregon silverspot butterfly and tidewater goby. As many as 100,000 birds use the wetlands during seasonal migration.

When the waters were low, developers paved 27 miles of roads and put up street signs. With county approval, they began selling the half-acre lots in the newly named Pacific Shores subdivision for as much as $10,000 to buyers mostly from Southern California and Hawaii.

Less than a decade later, the Coastal Act was passed. Ever since, lot owners have been unable to get a water and sewer system installed in such a sensitive area of seasonal wetlands, sand dunes and endangered species.

Maxine Curtis, a property owner in Oregon who feels scammed, said, "If you go out there and walk around, you'll realize there's no way you're ever going to build out there. We went out and looked at one property and it was flooded in the driveway -- you couldn't drive up into it."

The roads are now cracked and lead toward rusted mailboxes waiting for letters that will never come. Some lots have been turned into a squatters' paradise of abandoned buses, boats and trash. A half-submerged "for sale" sign marks one parcel.

Many owners remained defiant.

In 1988, they created a water district that collected fees used to pursue the right to build. That same year, Fish and Game and the county stopped breaching the lake to let it drain into the ocean, instead allowing it to flood.

"The idea is to return it to as near natural as possible," said Tim Williamson, the Fish and Game area manager, who oversees the Lake Earl Wildlife Area. "Even without bringing the water down, it's 70% wetlands."

Over time, the subdivision's neatly trimmed lots and roads fell into disrepair, confounding property owners who were occasionally found wandering around searching for their lots.

Locals, meanwhile, found other uses for the vacant subdivision.

"Ninety percent of the residents here either learned how to drive here or were conceived here," Williamson said.

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