SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) — Supervisors in San Francisco on Tuesday voted to rescind the sale of a private street in a wealthy neighborhood near the Presidio.
Two years ago, an investor scooped up Presidio Terrace for only $90,000 after its wealthy owners didn't pay property taxes for years. At the meeting by SF Supervisors, the well-connected homeowners got their wish.
The vote was 7-4 with those in favor saying residents of Presidio Terrace had not received enough notice before their private sidewalk was sold at auction in 2015.
Supervisor Mark Farrell, who represents the district, said it was not good policy to allow out-of-town speculators to swoop in on land from law-abiding property owners who simply did not know they owed taxes on their street.
"As a matter of policy, I am proud of my seven colleagues who voted against allowing these speculators to get away with purchasing a neighborhood street and attempting to extort San Francisco residents that I represent into a quick $1 million payday," Farrell said in a statement. " I am shocked that four of my colleagues sided with these out-of-town speculators."
He agreed the homeowners' due process rights were violated. The tax collector had been sending tax bills to an outdated address.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen voted against reversing the sale, agreeing that most people did not expect to pay taxes on their sidewalk but also saying most people did not have a private and gated street in front of their house.
During the meeting, the British consul general in San Francisco and others who own property on an exclusive gated street are testifying that they had no idea the sidewalk to their street was a separate tax lot that could be sold.
By taking up the issue, officials sparked criticism that the city is not as fair and equitable as it claims, but a playground for the rich who don't have to play by the same rules as everyone else. San Francisco has some of the most exorbitant property prices in the country and has become increasingly unaffordable for many people.
City Treasurer Jose Cisneros says the association representing some three dozen homeowners was responsible for updating its address and should have paid its taxes on time. He backed new owner Tina Lam, a Silicon Valley software manager who bought the street, sidewalks and common areas for $90,000 in 2015.
The oval-shaped street in upscale Presidio Heights is lined with leafy palms, lush landscaping and multimillion-dollar mansions. Previous residents of the gated neighborhood include U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who wrote a letter that accused the city of bureaucratic bungling.
Homeowners learned about the sale earlier this year and petitioned the board for a hearing.
The issue gave at least one supervisor voting pains. Aaron Peskin said he would side with the new owner in a "hot second" if he could because of the way the association has behaved. However, he said that the homeowners make a reasonable argument that government should not take property without better notice.
Still, he was annoyed by Feinstein's letter.
"That was another damning piece of evidence to vote with the buyer, who bought it fair and square," Peskin said.
It marked the second time the association has defaulted, but it won back the street in 1985 after paying up.
Amanda Fried, a spokeswoman for the treasurer, said the group has not paid taxes since 2000, which is as far back as records go. In 2015, the office posted for auction a lot that owed less than $1,000 in back taxes, penalties and other charges.
Fried said the office sent certified notices to nearly 1,500 addresses that properties were being auctioned off and more than half were returned as undeliverable, including for Presidio Terrace. Homeowners say at that point, the treasurer's office was required to do more to notify them that their property was for sale.
"It's a constitutional issue," said Matt Dorsey, spokesman for the homeowners association. "If the process of that sale was constitutionally impermissible, it settles the question. It should not have been sold."
Michael Kirkpatrick, an attorney with national consumer-rights organization Public Citizen who won a similar case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006, supported the homeowners. The court held that when a notice of a sale is returned undelivered, the government needs to strive further to alert property owners before selling.
"The government has to do more if there are reasonable alternative efforts available, and here, I think there are," he said.
Shepard Kopp, attorney for the new owner, argued in a scathing court brief that San Francisco should not give politically connected homeowners an out for failing to do what is expected of every other property owner in the city: pay their taxes on time.
He said the Supreme Court case might not apply because it involved a house and not vacant land.
"When people learn that this isn't the first time the homeowners association didn't pay taxes and lost title to the street, there's not a whole lot of sympathy for them after that," Kopp said.
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