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Unfinished Unpermitted Business

On April 5 I received an unsolicited text message: “Good day! My name is Hunter and I work for a land brokerage. I see you have a VACANT lot of land in Mendocino County, CA. Would you be interested in selling and if so have an asking price in mind?”

I almost went straight to delete, but I thought I would play it out a bit. I checked on the area code of the phone number attached to the text: 813. The 813 area code serves the western portion of central Florida. 

Due to the vagaries of history, geography, and the deeded land rights of the railroad that once ran alongside the Albion River there are five different parcels on the Macdonald ranch. The newest of those was acquired around 1950. The one before that, my Macdonald grandfather purchased in 1913. Others predate that by a goodly number of years. 

You get the picture, I'm sure, that the likelihood of sale of this land rests somewhere between slim and none. I texted back, “Which one of the lots?”

Apparently in Florida, this particular land broker didn't understand parcels. Hunter responded with the physical address.

I clarified, “Which parcel are you seeking?”

Hunter replied again with the physical address. Perhaps channeling how my parents would phrase things, I asked, “Are you not aware of how many parcels are at that address?”

Quite awhile went by. One could speculate that Hunter was getting familiarized with Mendocino County's Assessor Parcel Number (APN) system. Eventually, Hunter texted, “Sorry, its [sic] this parcel here...”

Hunter supplied an APN that corresponds to a sizable acreage immediately north of where my house sits. The house rests on a different parcel. 

On April 20 (4/20 – what more appropriate day!) I finally got around to adding this query, “How much are you offering for it?”

Not that it is actually for sale. As well, the 4/20 text proved a coincidence. In the time between April 5 and April 20, I made the acquaintance of someone like me who likes to hike hither, thither, and yon in our fair countryside. I told him the tale of the unsolicited text and he said it might have stemmed from Florida because as he put it the street price of marijuana is higher there than in California. 

According to that theory, which I have not verified, open rural properties here are being bought up and flipped to black market marijuana growers who can get much more for their crop elsewhere in these United States.

That theory aside, marijuana may be a factor in something that has gone relatively unreported for years, if not decades. My new hiking friend has been following this topic for awhile now. He offered these insights after watching a fairly recent Board of Supervisors meeting: “The one positive takeaway from the meeting is that the County Assessor acknowledged that there could be 10% of homes missing from the County tax base. That validates my estimate.”

This fellow has figured out the basics in accessing information. “FYI: the assessor's office may not directly release tax information to the public, all you need though is an APN and you can pull tax records within seconds for any property in Mendocino County and you can easily find an APN through the county portals.”

He went on to bring it closer to home. “On my morning hike yesterday I decided to take a slightly different route and ended up at the highest point on our property and was shocked to see ‘new construction’ about a mile to the west. What I observed was a home under construction (rough framed and some sheer wall) about 2500 square feet in size. When I returned home, I checked the most current satellite imagery (June 2021) and the county database for permits. I found nothing. What I did find was a significant amount of non-permitted cannabis. After checking the tax records, the property owner has a Florida address.” 

This is where he interjected that he has heard that the current black market price for cannabis in Florida is over $4,000 per pound.

He went on about non-permitted or non-assessed houses. “This is not an exception; I have found approximately 10% of the unpermitted/under taxed properties have out of state addresses.” He added that out of state equals non-Mendocino County voters.

He went further. “Mendocino County doesn't have a significant or consistent penalty system in place to deter unpermitted home construction. There is no consequence for not complying with the law. This has created a culture of non-compliance that is well known, shared, and embraced. In 2019, Mendocino County adopted Title 24 in its entirety. This provides the ground work to enforce the building code. Mendocino County needs to change its accountability process.”

Title 24 refers to California Energy Codes for residential or commercial buildings. A Title 24 report performed by an energy consultant in assessing energy loads is now supposed to be part of any new construction permit.

My hiking friend described the situation relative to what he had just observed from that high vantage point. “My neighbor to the north started building a second home (the first home was built in the 1970s unpermitted) on their property in 2012, finished the home in 2014. No taxes have ever been paid for either home. Yet they live in Mendocino County and feel entitled to county services.” 

He has more. “Based on median home values in the county, I estimate prior year taxes not assessed could be at least $50,000 – 10 years at $5,000 a year. My suggestion: the penalty that Mendocino County implement is requiring the land owners to pay back taxes from the start of construction on the unpermitted home, with interest as the fine on back taxes. I believe the majority of the people who are constructing new unpermitted homes in Mendocino are not the good old hippies living in the backwoods living off the land, hand to mouth, as in days of yore. They are the new generation, with the resources to build modern homes, and using technology to enable them to live and work anywhere, with the complete comforts of modern society.”

Given what I see, I might disagree. It seems there are still a goodly number of “back to the land” type unassessed or non-permitted houses. My hiker friend continued about his own experiences. “My wife and I finished building our new ‘off grid’ home over a year ago (finaled by the county in 2021) and we still haven't had our property assessed. We called the assessor's office in November when we noticed that our home wasn't included on the current property tax bill. We passed on the information that we had and, to my knowledge, no assessment has yet to be done. I'm pointing this out to you not because I like paying taxes, but because it shows a breakdown in the County's processes between Planning and Building and the Assessor's office. We have to do better.”

Using that 10% estimate of non-assessed properties, combining the information that Mendocino County property taxes were nearly $40 million last year, one could calculate a $4 million boon to the county coffers. However, it would appear that most unassessed properties are over a more modern vintage that amount is likely an underestimate. Given that properties that have been held onto since pre-Prop 13 times hold down the average, one could double that estimate of lost money to $8 million. There are those who have placed their guesses on nonassessed structures at double the 10% my hiking friend sees. 

So, start calculating the loss to the county budget based on another doubling and we're getting into serious dollars. 

Let's leave it there. However, this is obviously unfinished business.

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