Like zombies they stumbled towards courthouse square in downtown Santa Rosa as county workers, already buried under great piles of documents dumped upon them, struggled bravely on with forlorn hopes that someday the onslaught might somehow end.
Do I exaggerate? Only a little; sans the "zombie" flourish – which, as you'll soon learn becomes weirdly apropos later – that description is true to the spirit of how the Press Democrat described the situation in the beleaguered County Recorder's office during the spring of 1912:
|The recording of these deeds has thrown Recorder Nagle and his force away behind with the regular work...Recorder Nagle is now receiving many letters of inquiry from many States in the Union, and especially has this been so during the past few days. It is impossible for him to answer all the letters that come. They arrive in stacks. Two thirds of the heavy mail received at the Recorder's office Thursday was made up of these deeds...|
At issue were deeds to Sonoma County property which were often won in far-away raffles or drawings for a lucky admission ticket at a nickelodeon movie theater. Other local parcels were sold by real estate hustlers who printed up brochures promising summers spent at a Sonoma County vacation home "roaming through the Redwoods, over the forest-clad hills or along the side of rippling streams, watching and listening to the tumbling falls," or trying ones luck at tempting "the elusive mountain trout from its hiding place in the shady woodland pools." All for as little as $10/acre.
It was a con game, or course, but probably not the kind you suspect. This was actual land – albeit divided up in so-called "paper subdivisions" which only existed on maps. Rarely surveyed and often drawn up as drafting school exercises, the maps presented neat rectangular grids, usually of parcels 25 by 100 feet, that followed streets with charming names: "Cherry Creek Boulevard," or "Walnut way." In reality, the lots were often on steep, unbuildable hillsides where no streets would ever wind around those impassible slopes. Another name for these subdivisions is "wildcat" - they were on land only wildcats roamed.
As the 1912 Press Democrat reported, County Recorder Fred Nagle found himself under siege by people from out of the area who honestly believed they would soon be moving to California's Eden. "Letters from other counties, from British Columbia, from Nevada, from Arizona, from Oregon and Washington are pouring in to the Recorder, the Assessor, the Tax Collector and to other officials of Sonoma, pleading for information regarding these peculiar transactions," historian Tom Gregory wrote in a letter to the PD.
One man wrote to ask if the San Francisco trolley ran out to "Cloverdale Heights." A guy from Albuquerque came out looking for his lot near the town of "Russian River" and someone from Denver stopped by the Recorder's office to record his deed and left disgusted that he had been tricked into also buying another lot adjacent to the phony homesite he won with his "lucky number."
But Recorder Nagle and his staff weren't only kept busy answering letters and fielding long-distance phone calls; they were actually busily recording deeds for those unusable chunks of land because the new owner had sent the county the $6.50 recording fee. "The recording of these deeds has thrown Recorder Nagle and his force away behind with the regular work," reported the PD, noting the volume was particularly harmful because the county was then at the start of a legitimate real estate boom.
While the scam first attracted attention in 1912, that was by no means the end of it; wildcat lots continued to be given away or sold for years to come. Had even a teensy portion of these properties been developed, Sonoma county would be a far different place today. With over 15,000 of these lots in the Cazadero vicinity alone, "Cazadero Woodlands" and the other subdivisions would have been the largest city north of San Francisco - over five times the size of Santa Rosa at the time.
Virtually none of this land was developed, of course, and most buyers simply stopped paying taxes when they realized they had been swindled, so the land went back to the county or state. But holding on to the land was easy, too; the property tax was almost nothing and sometimes Uncle Fletcher's mysterious property out in California was handed down. Taxes paid or not, there always has been a steady trickle of people coming in to the Assessor's office with a yellowed slip of paper to enquire whether it showed they had a secret forgotten fortune. The answer was always: No.
That is, until resurrection day.
Flash forward sixty years as California enacts a minor tweak to the law to "let property owners know where they stand." Say you inherited 100 acres handed down in the family from great-great-grandpa. He bought half of it from a neighbor in the 1880s, tore down the separating fence and farmed it all as a single plot. Did you inherit two parcels or one? According to the new law, you owned two – as long as some paperwork called an "administrative certificate of compliance" was obtained from the county. Sounds fair, right?
But that was just the beginning. State law also decreed anyone with a deed had the right to reclaim property lost in tax default by paying all the back taxes due. Thus whomever had the deed to Uncle Fletcher's worthless little parcel could own it again. That deed-holder could then go to the county to obtain one of those administrative certificates. And with that in hand, the little parcel, once just part of a grid on an old and useless map, sprang into life as a duly-recognized legal property that could be sold – or developed.
'Turns out quite a bit had happened since back in the day when poor old Fred Nagle was grumbling about the futility of recording all those worthless paper lots - namely, it wasn't so certain the land was still worthless. There were now paved roads and utilities available in once wild 'n' wooly places like Cazadero and Dry Creek, and modern construction techniques made it possible to build on places that would have been impossible when the maps were drawn. At the same time all Sonoma county property values were skyrocketing in the 1980s, in large part because there were strict zoning restrictions on new land development - regulations that didn't apply to Uncle Fletcher's movie theater prize, once it was awarded a certificate of compliance.
In the early 1990s I wrote often about the fallout from the certificate process for the old E.I.R. newspaper, California Lawyer magazine, and other publications, and much of what follows is lifted from those articles. I found planners fearful the certificates would destroy Sonoma county agriculture, turning the rural areas into a crazy quilt of McMansion subdivisions, far from sewer lines, modern roads, and other infrastructure needed for their support. And under state law, the county was powerless to stop it. "It's like 'Night of the Living Dead,'" one county planner grimly joked to me, "all of these old properties are rising from the grave."
They had reason to fear: There were an estimated 75,000 lots in this county that could be resurrected by certificates. Recorder Fred and his successors had been busy, indeed.
Making matters worse, developers were always two giant steps ahead of the county. Uncle Fletcher's bungalow-sized parcel wasn't worth developing by itself – but having deeds for almost every parcel in his entire wildcat subdivision was a different story. In the 1980s and early 1990s there were companies formed in Sonoma county to search out descendants of all those people who once sent the county that $6.50 registration fee. It was no easy task; the average size of these wildcat subdivisions was over 800 lots, according to a county memo. The game of find-the-heir was like a marathon scavenger hunt – collect 'em all to win the prize.
Was it worth all that work? You bet; Mr. Developer could then strut through the doors of the county planning department pushing a wheelbarrow full of documents – one infamous submission included over 25 pounds of paperwork – and declare he had the rights to build a mammoth project. As the parcels were recognized as having existed since 1912 (or whenever), his project superseded all modern rules and environmental protections. It didn't matter if the land was in an agricultural preserve or community greenbelt; it didn't matter whether the land could pass a septic "perc" test to allow homeowners the luxury of flush toilets. It even didn't matter whether the property had reasonable access. In a scandalous 1992 application, a developer claimed two hundred certificates on a remote, 3,000 ft. elevation hilltop near the Geysers where the only access was Pine Flat Road, terrifyingly steep and scarcely wider than a private driveway.
But the developers never proposed following the original subdivision layout on the old maps; those were just grid lines, remember, with no relation to actual terrain. No, the certificates of compliance were just bargaining chips. After paperwork for the certificates were filed, developers would follow by requesting "lot-line adjustments," allowing them to cluster lots on the best parts of the land and build as many homes as possible. This also allowed developers to posture as the good guy while negotiating with the county - "Hey, I have 500 certificates, but I'm asking permission to build only 150 houses."
And in some cases, the threat of possible certificates was all a developer needed. The county was so worried about development at the peak of Pine Flat Road that the Open Space District bought it. No paperwork was filed applying for certificates on the supposed 200 parcels, although the Sonoma Land Trust and the developer privately agreed he could probably get at least 27 recognized.
Sonoma county led the legal fight against the certificate process for more than three decades. Details would probably bore most readers here, but it was mostly a story of disheartening defeats. The county adopted a cutoff date of 1929, which was the year the Subdivision Map Act was passed in the state. That law required counties to have regulations and local ordinances defining how subdivision should be done, and the county reasoned that properties after that year would at least have been surveyed or otherwise proven to be real. But a few months later the Attorney General slapped that rule down, leaving all doors open.
Only since the year 2001 has the pendulum has begun swinging back to local control. In a landmark case involving land near Sebastopol, the state Supreme Court ruled that old maps weren't necessarily legitimate simply because they existed, and certainly were no justification for bypassing current rules and regs. Another court decision ruled against a Petaluma developer and has apparently quashed the hopes of anyone using a paper subdivision map created prior to 1929. So at long last, the fake subdivisions seem to be dead and buried.
The long arc of this story is amazing, if you ponder a moment on it: A 1912 movie ticket sold in Kansas became part of a magic talisman that would allow its bearer immunity to laws in California, 70 or 80 or 90 years later. Robert Ripley might have enjoyed writing it up for his Believe It Or Not! series. He liked to tell unbelievable stories.
BUNGALOW LOTS GO WITH SHOWRushing Business Being Carried On by Numerous Nickelodeons Throughout the CountryEditor Press Democrat: The "Bungalow Site Industry" in Sonoma county goes merrily on, and the "Fairy Sylvan Resorts" where the fairies may resort after they have fallen to the "game" and have come through with the $6.50 or other cash for the deed to the lot are going just as fast as the "drawings" can be drawn. Imperial Sonoma has fallen into hard lines, and her name is being used abroad to extract coin from the "easy" ones. The game is a little, simple thing--a sweet little simple thing. Somebody files a map--calls his tract by a catchy name--offers his lots by divers and lottery-ish methods, and the fish rises to the bait. These "opportunities" are not given generally to the public in Sonoma county, but at a distance. Letters from other counties, from British Columbia, from Nevada, from Arizona, from Oregon and Washington are pouring in to the Recorder, the Assessor, the Tax Collector and to other officials of Sonoma, pleading for information regarding these peculiar transactions. The character of the victims may be determined by the tenor of these letters--they are poor, and in many instances, illiterate, just the class of persons that may fall to such a cheap skin-game as this...
...And the location where these "Sharks" are doing their "best" work strike one as peculiar. Around Sacramento, where a local real land-boom is on, the victims are buying $6.50 mirage bungalow site in Sonoma county; in Los Angeles--where every prospect pleases (or is advertised to please) and every man is not vile--they are sending their six-fifty deeds to the county for record. A man in Albuquerque, N. M., in a raffle won a six-shooter, and with his "win" was a lot--20x40 feet--somewhere in the neighborhood of "Russian River," Sonoma county. After he had dropped eight or ten dollars in the game, he loaded the other portion of his winnings and went gunning for the "lot" sharp. He is now putting in his leisure time cussing Sonoma county, Cal., and yet admiring the scheme that beat him--an old, seasoned territorial sport--so easily.
Among the letters the County Recorder receives daily is one he found in his mail yesterday from Oregon City, Or., in which the writer says he won at a Nickelodeon in his city a lot in this county and he wants to know if the property is worth the $6.50. D. Andersen--that's his name--(can anybody give him the information?) inclosed with his note of inquiry a handbill of the show describing the mythical lot, and that description is a gem: "Two bubbling, dashing, splashing, crashing, like the famous waters that come down at Lodore[,] branches of Russian River flow the idealic [sic] place; it is on the Northwestern Pacific line, while Healdsburg, a city of over 4,000 inhabitants, is not; Santa Rosa, "the ideal city of California" and Luther Burbank, "the plant wizzard," (with two z's) are invoked to further the "boost." And it ends up with a request to "Come Along and Bring the Children and take Advantage of Thes FREE DRAWINGS and Secure a Home Site at this Famous Resort in Sonoma County, where a Chance is Given Away ABSOLUTELY FREE With Each Ticket."
The time has come to stop this business. If the Board of Supervisors, or a Grand Jury of this county cannot do something to discourage the traffic, the newspapers should take the matter up. Every exchange should reprint this article, and spread the tiding abroad that this cheap, cheap game may be ended. Our splendid county, with her grand scenic features, is getting the advertising she does not deserve, and does not want. Sonoma wants "everybody to come along and bring the children," but she does not want the bunkoed before they get here.
Santa Rosa, Feb. 9, 1912.
- Press Democrat, February 10, 1912
MANY MYTHICAL LOTS ARE SOLD"Cloverdale Heights" a Rugged Piece of Hill Not Yet Surveyed, They SayFrom Cloverdale comes another complaint of the manner in which people are being duped all over the State and in adjoining states by the sale of lots in worthless tracts.
Mention of what looks like near fraud, at least has been made from time to time in the Press Democrat in connection with the immense amount of work entailed at the office of County Recorder Fred Nagle by the recording of deeds to lots given away with tickets at moving picture shows in different parts of the State. The following from the Cloverdale "Reveille" will be read with interest:
Cloverdale business men have the last several days received letters from parties making inquiries regarding "Cloverdale Heights" and another piece of property which bears the rather high sounding title of "Cloverdale Terrace." These inquiries, which come from San Francisco and other cities, some from as far as Kansas City, Mo., are from people who have invested small sums of money under the delusions that they were securing a fine summer home overlooking Cloverdale. In some instances the inquiries show a lack of information regarding the location of Cloverdale, evidently believing the "Orange City" is a suburb of San Francisco and connected with the metropolis by cable or trolley car. The Reveille is informed that the Recorder's office is kept busy placing deeds on record to lots in the above named tracts. As near as can be learned "Cloverdale Heights" is nothing more than a rugged piece of land located about three miles northwest of Cloverdale via air line, with no road leading to the land, except an old untraveled one new unfit for use. Until sold a short time ago it was owned by Erik Angler, who took it up as a homestead some years ago.
- Press Democrat, April 13, 1912
MANY PEOPLE STILL BITING ON MOVING PICTURE TICKET LOTS"Does San Francisco Street Car Line Run Out to Cloverdale Heights?" Asks One EnquirerWouldn't this jar you?
"Will you tell me if the San Francisco electric car system runs to the place?" asks an inquirer in a letter for information about Cloverdale Heights, one of the rock-bound "paradises" for which tickets are being "given away" in chances in moving picture houses, presumably all over the country. This inquiry came from a lot "winner" in Kansas City.
Such a big laugh. And yet it is quite possible that the inquirer had been led to believe that the beautiful city of Cloverdale was located on the electric car system of San Francisco, when in reality it is many miles away and on the line of the Northwestern Pacific. Some time since the Cloverdale people considered the taking of some steps to prevent deception practiced upon unsuspecting people by such clap-trap as the proposition mentioned.
The other day a well-known citizen of Cloverdale called at the office of County Recorder Fred G. Nagle to ask where the "Heights" were located, and was surprised to find that such a place really existed.
Still They Come
Stacks of deeds are still being received at the Recorder's office from lot owners in the several plots that are being handled in different parts of Sonoma county by means of the moving picture house tickets. The plan has been explained several times in this and other papers. But people are still biting. The recording of these deeds has thrown Recorder Nagle and his force away behind with the regular work. The recording of legitimate transactions has been very heavy for months on account of the activity in the realty business and the many new settlers who are coming to the county and purchasing homes.
Came From Denver
A few days ago a man came to Recorder Nagle's office. He had traveled to Sonoma county from Denver, Colorado, to inspect the lots he had become heir to through holding "a lucky number." In addition, he had been induced to purchase an adjoining lot. It cost him his time and about $200 to come to the "ideal summer site." He turned back disgusted and went home.
The plan has progressed far beyond the boundaries of California, as this instance indicates. Recorder Nagle is now receiving many letters of inquiry from many States in the Union, and especially has this been so during the past few days. It is impossible for him to answer all the letters that come. They arrive in stacks. Two thirds of the heavy mail received at the Recorder's office Thursday was made up of these deeds to lots.
As much as possible, Recorder Nagle, County Assessor Frank E. Dowd, and the newspapers of this city and county have been sending broadcast that the great county of Sonoma, with its unequaled resources and matchless climate, has nothing whatever to do with this false boom of practically worthless property. It could all be avoided if people would reason out the improbability of securing for the song of a few dollars--$6.50 for the deed--must be in the nature of a catch for an easy mark.
- Press Democrat, May 24, 1912