For some months last year the trailhead parking lot for Hot Springs Trail in Montecito was closed in the evenings. Cones were placed right out to the edge of the pavement of Mountain Drive.
I came down the trail late on the evening of December 4, 2017, after enjoying stargazing on a fire road. At the top of Hot Springs Road I got on my electric bicycle to go home. As I approached the trailhead parking lot and the cones, I stopped to see what was going on. A security guard working for Mission Security and Patrol approached me and told me the parking lot was private property. He beckoned me to some barely noticeable handwritten cardboard signs on a chain link fence behind the lot stating that cars parked after 10 p.m. would be towed.
In complete disbelief, I told him the parking lot is a public lot used for many years. When I stayed in the parking lot to discuss the matter with him, he called the Sheriff’s Office, and grabbed hold of my bicycle so I couldn’t leave. When two officers arrived on the scene, deputies Scherubarth and Caravano, he was still holding onto my bicycle. He told me he recorded the encounter and was giving the recording to the deputies.
I did some research at the county building on Anapamu Street. I found that the assessor’s map used for tax purposes indicates the county right-of-way for the road is 60 feet, which happens to be the same distance as between the two chain-link fences on either side of the road. The paved road itself is only 27 feet wide. On this map, the private property boundary is set way back.
The county parcel map indicates otherwise — that the private property extends to the middle of Mountain Drive (I was informed by a county official that property boundaries going to the middle of roads are common in Montecito). On this map the property assessed for tax purposes is also shown — set way back from the road — allowing room for a significant right-of-way for the roadway. Does a property owner maintain control of the right-of-way of a road that he or she is not taxed for? For example, can parking be excluded on the shoulder? I was informed by the county Planning and Development department that the answer is no unless the owner gets a roadway encroachment permit.
There is also the matter of eminent domain. If a trail or parking area is used continuously for many years, it can become part of the public domain. Here is a parking lot used since the ’70s or before, and cars have often been parked late in the evening, or even left overnight, as this is a good trailhead for backpacking trips.
If the parking lot is private property, why weren’t some decent signs citing legal codes placed there? Also, an explanation for the change would have been in order. There weren’t even any signs stating that trespassing was prohibited. What if one missed the scribbled cardboard signs and returned to find his car towed away? How many vehicles did Mission Security have towed?
This trailhead parking lot was decimated by mudslides in January 2018, but now it has been restored. A brand new chain-link fence is up, where the old one was. But now there are no warning signs. The parking lot is again filled with cars — the trail and fire roads are busy with hikers. The cones are no longer set up, and the parking lot is not being patrolled. Does the property owner responsible for closing off the parking area plan on resuming the operation?