Federal Land Grab Comes to California at Vail Lake

Americans have become increasingly concerned about the federal government's seizure of privately-held lands and property, especially after the Cliven Bundy incident in Nevada. Now another land owner, Bill Johnson of Temecula, California, claims his property at Vail Lake, the largest privately-owned lake in California, is being threatened by the county, state, and federal governments.

Johnson purchased 11,000 acres of land in Riverside County over 17 years ago, including Vail Lake, encompassing over 1,000 square surface acres of water. Now Johnson claims various levels of government are trying to seize the property, using intimidation under the guise of environmental concerns.

Johnson told Breitbart News: "The habitat is free of any endangered species. The government just wants it because it’s part of their 'core area' due to the properties of water and enormous size."

He mentioned that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) currently manages land parcels on either side of Vail Lake.

"The EPA needed to come up with 42,000 acres in the area to 'protect' the kangaroo rats," Johnson said. "They intimated property owners into giving up their land."

Duncan Hunter, a Republican Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California from 1981 to 2009, has known Johnson since the 1970's.

"There's a common thread between Johnson's situation and the Bundys' situation," Hunter told Breitbart News. "The heavy hand of government has played in both of those cases."

The land of over 15,000 property owners in Johnson's county was ultimately bought off by the Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP), an entity comprised of state and federal government agencies. The MSHCP told land owners that for environmental reasons, their property could not be developed, split, or farmed.

"They devalued properties," Johnson said. "The government told property owners that selling to the state would be voluntary. They said, 'If you don't sell to us, you won’t be able to sell it to anyone.' The land became worthless and devalued since you can’t farm it or build on it."

Hunter argued that the federal Endangered Species Act allows counties to bully residents into giving up their properties.

"If the government says you can’t use your property for anything, they've essentially taken your property from you," he said. "Essentially, you're not a real property owner. Then the government has the best of all worlds--they paralyze your use of the property but they still demand property tax from you."

The former congressman said that the state and local government has leverage over citizens using the federal government as an arm. The Endangered Species Act is used "as a way for local governments to build empires, employ people, and make money," Hunter said. "The federal government passed the Act, which said that an array of plants and animals are to be protected and cannot be disturbed. Some plant and animal exists almost everywhere."

He said the counties and the cities have understood the value of the Act and used it to exert power over land owners.

Jeff Stone, the Riverside County Supervisor, has also known Johnson for many years. 

"Johnson is certainly not happy and I can understand that," Stone told Breitbart News. "The pendulum has swung way too far to the left with regards to the Endangered Species Act. It has impeded on some property rights, there's no question about that."

Stone mentioned, however, that the county is only enforcing federal law through the MSHCP. 

He said, "Could Bill Johnson build whatever he wants without our plan? The answer is no. He would have to go to the federal government."

Stone said that the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act is particularly unfair to citizens who purchased their land before the MSHCP was put into place, such as Johnson. Buyers who purchased their land after the plan was put into place, however, purchased their land knowing it might be protected for endangered species. 

"If the federal government wants to preserve the land that Johnson has had for 17 years, they should step up and buy it for market value," Stone said. "There has been an assault on property rights by the federal government. The plan was adopted prior to me being on the board. It's a plan that I have to live with, but I still have my concerns about property rights."

Currently, the BLM has control over about two-thirds of Riverside County, according to Johnson. "The county claims they need the land to protect lots of rare species," Johnson said. "But there have been studies done that that just isn't true."

The MSHCP further claims the land should be under government control, since Johnson owes $4.75 million in property taxes, penalties and interest on overdue fees. Johnson has largely refused to compensate the agencies trying to seize his property. He believes that the tax assessments would be fair if he were able to develop or farm his own land--but because the MSHCP will not allow this, his property value is substantially less.

Johnson said, "How can you pay taxes on property you can do nothing with? The government will sneer at you and say, 'It's our property. You need to pay taxes, but the property is ours in the end.' During the 17 years that I've owned Vail Lake, I have not built one single thing on the property. The minute I bought my land, they started taking all my rights away. They stripped the zoning, general plan, and specific plan for the property and open space designation, depriving it of its value."

Stone added, "Johnson could make the argument: I am paying property taxes on land that I cannot maximize for my own benefit--why should I pay taxes on land that I cannot develop? I think he makes a valid argument there, but the laws are the laws."

A California-based spokesman from the BLM told Breitbart Texas that the agency has a thorough process for determining which lands it ultimately chooses to manage. 

"We start with a public scoping period," the spokesman told Breitbart Texas. "We engage the public in telling us the issues they want us to address--we also address stakeholder groups like environmental groups. Those people are all engaged in the process. We then develop draft plans and environmental impact statements, which go out for public review and comment."

He mentioned that the BLM is only able to seize privately-owned land from a third party. The spokesman said, "Sometimes a third party will purchase that land from willing sellers, then they transfer that land to BLM to become [federal] public land."

In many cases, state or local authorities like the MSHCP act as the "third party," and leave home owners very little choice but to sell by barring their land from being developed. MSHCP then hands the land over to the BLM, which currently controls both plots of land bordering Vail Lake. 

Breitbart News made multiple attempts to reach out to the MSHCP. Although a representative did not return phone calls, explanatory information is accessible on the entity's website. 500,000 acres of land in Riverside County was "designated for preservation" to protect certain species.

"About 69% or 347,000 acres was already public or quasi-public land when RCA was formed in 2004," the MSHCP website states. "This land forms the core of the habitat conservation plan. RCA’s work focuses on the remaining 153,000 acres needed to fulfill the plan’s requirements and is expected to take at least 25 years. To date, 27% of the remaining goal of 153,000 acres has been acquired."

That remaining land will likely be taken from private citizens in the county, like Johnson.

Johnson is no stranger to government land grabs. In 1995, the County, along with help from federal agents, seized his 2,000 acre ranch on the Santa Rosa Plateau. Johnson said he lost over $18 million on the property, which the county claims to have seized to protect the endangered kangaroo rat.

Johnson said people in his county, and indeed across the U.S., are becoming concerned about the growing government power over land rights. "There is a growing understanding that this is wrong," Johnson said. "Everyone understands, even some of the environmental advocates, that this has spun out-of-control."

Hunter added that Johnson's case is "a real point of principle. When property rights are discretionary, and a government entity has the power to take it from you, then the danger of political corruption and manipulation of property rights becomes very real."

Photo: Kristin Tate/Breitbart News


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