When Mike Spangler bought a 2.5-acre lot on Shell Beach Road in 2002, he didn’t expect that 13 years later he’d be embroiled in a contentious legal battle with the city of Pismo Beach over the future of his property.
“I’m 70 years old,” he said. “I should be playing with my grandchildren, not spending all my time and money on this fight.”
In August, the city shut off utilities to Spangler’s home after he refused to sign a deed restriction that would preserve a majority of his property as open space and permanently keep a dirt lot next to his house undeveloped — a requirement the city says was a part of the original conditional use permit to build his home.
“This is really a case of one man saying he doesn’t have to follow the rules,” City Manager James Lewis said. “This is about the rule of law.”
Spangler, a former president of the Pismo Beach Chamber of Commerce, sought and was granted a restraining order in Superior Court against the city in September, preventing the city from fining him $500 per day and attempting to evict him from his home.
Both parties were scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday, to discuss the underlying question of whether or not Spangler must sign the deed restriction, but that court date has been put on hold indefinitely as both sides pursue putting new judges on the case.
A lot of history
The city has a lengthy legal history with the lot in question.
In 1983, Pismo Beach updated its General Plan to change the zoning on what was then an empty lot — known as “Lot 50” — from residential to open space.
The zoning change came while the owner at the time, Stan Bell, was already battling the California Coastal Commission to remove the commission’s restriction that prevented any development except a low-to-moderate-income housing complex.
After a series of lawsuits alleging that the city had denied Bell all reasonable economic use of the property by changing the zoning to open space, Pismo Beach amended the zoning to allow Bell to build one house on the lot, creating “Open Space-1” zoning.
Open Space zoning is intended for ‘areas with significant natural resources, environmentally sensitive habitats, and/or scenic views to be protected,’ according to the Pismo Beach Municipal Code.
As part of a settlement agreement, the city also bought the lot for $150,000 but soon discovered the affordable housing restriction and sued Bell for fraud. The property reverted back to Bell, who sold it to Spangler in 2002. The Coastal Commission later dropped its affordable housing requirement at Spangler’s request.
In 2003, Spangler received city approval to build a house on his property, which has a spectacular ocean view at the north end of Shell Beach.
Because of the zoning, a condition of the approval required Spangler to sign an open-space easement agreeing to keep the portion of the lot not taken up by the house and driveway undeveloped, according to the city. Spangler was told to file an easement with the planning department, Lewis said.
A copy of the Planning Commission resolution included in Spangler’s lawsuit packet includes the clause requiring Spangler to file an easement.
“The applicant shall record a permanent open-space easement over any portion of the development not occupied by a structure or driveway or other developed area,” the condition reads. “The form of easement shall be reviewed and approved by the Planning Division prior to recordation.”
Spangler never did.
In his suit, Spangler claims the city led him to believe an easement wasn’t necessary, though he doesn’t have written evidence of this. He said it was through the city’s actions — notably allowing him to build his home without the signed easement — that the city implied he didn’t need to file one.
He further claims that he was told before buying the property that he would be able to apply for a General Plan amendment to change the property’s zoning from open space to low-density residential, so that he could subdivide the lot and build more homes after his own was built — making the easement unnecessary.
“This is a property rights issue, and a land rights issue,” Spangler said. “What they are asking is unconstitutional. They can’t tell me what to do with my property.”
Spangler completed the home in 2007 and has been living there since then with a temporary occupancy permit while he attempts to change the zoning to low-density residential so he can build three more homes as part of his vision for the Shell Beach gateway. Spangler’s house was featured on the Rotary Club of San Luis Obispo Houses of Distinction Tour in 2008, and was profiled by The Tribune in 2010 for its dramatic modern design.
In March 2014, the City Council ruled that it would not change the zoning on Spangler’s property and other open-space lots in the Sunset Palisades planning area, despite a recommendation from the Pismo Beach Planning Commission to do so.
Following that decision, Lewis contacted Spangler, asking him to sign the open-space easement and submit a letter withdrawing his applications for General Plan and zoning changes. If he did that, Lewis said the city would give him a permanent certificate of occupancy for the home he’s been living in for eight years.
“We didn’t just jump right in to fining him,” Lewis said. “This is something where we’ve been going, ‘Please work with us on this,’ for a long time. But at some point, the law is the law.”
Spangler was given until July 17 to comply or face fines of up to $500 a day. He did not, and the city fined him $200 on July 19, and $500 per day after that. At the time of his lawsuit, Spangler said the city had fined him $19,300, and the fine was continuing to accrue.
Literally, we slept with bags packed ready to go, because we thought, with how desperate the city was up to that point, that we would wake up to a cop pounding on the door, and they would pull us out and run us off the property.
Mike Spangler, Shell Beach resident
Spangler challenged the enforcement action on July 29, but was denied. On Aug. 14, the city revoked its temporary residency certificate, and 14 days later cut off his utilities. The city also posted “Do not occupy” notices on his house.
“Literally, we slept with bags packed ready to go, because we thought, with how desperate the city was up to that point, that we would wake up to a cop pounding on the door, and they would pull us out and run us off the property,” Spangler said. “It was very very stressful for us, the whole deal.”
Spangler said he received help from his friends and neighbors during that time, with one person even bringing him a full 5,000-gallon water tank to use and another supplying him with a generator so Spangler and his wife could power their house.
“Luckily, so many people have offered to help,” he said. “Hoteliers offered to let us stay for free. Neighbors said, ‘Mike come stay, we’re going on vacation. You can stay at the house.’ They bring water. Everybody came out to help.”
In September, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Ginger Garrett granted Spangler a temporary restraining order, stopping the city fines and allowing Spangler to stay in his home until legal proceedings have concluded.
Both parties were expected to return to court on Tuesday to debate the issue, but first the city and then Spangler have made moves to have a new judge put in charge of the case, which has delayed the court date. Lewis said Thursday that he expects the case will go to court sometime in December or January, though that could change.
This is really a case of one man saying he doesn’t have to follow the rules.
James Lewis, Pismo Beach City Manager
What’s at stake
Both Spangler and the city have high stakes in whatever decision is made in court.
Spangler said he has spent close to $50,000 fighting the city this year. The cost of owning the property already stresses his finances, and unless he is able to build more homes on the lot to bring in income, he won’t be able to continue living in Shell Beach for much longer, he said.
“I’m fighting for the citizens of Shell Beach and Pismo Beach too, because we deserve more than a vacant lot,” he said. “I’ve been at this for so long. As long as my financial resources hold up, I’m all in.”
The city, on the other hand, says a decision in Spangler’s favor would negatively impact the city’s power to enforce its rules.
“Can a resident be above the law?” Lewis asked. “Can they agree to a condition, and then come back and say they don’t want to follow the rules? If the court rules in Mr. Spangler’s favor, what is that saying about our ability to enforce our municipal code?”