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A California developer is buying up land in Seldovia, leaving some locals concerned

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published March 23, 2016

A California developer who bought up dozens of properties in the Kachemak Bay town of Seldovia is battling residents and officials over property rights, prompting a lawsuit and additional police presence at a city council meeting.

Since 2007, Precious Earth Inc. -- a real estate holding company based in Bakersfield, California -- has purchased 42 properties around tiny Seldovia, assessed by the Kenai Peninsula Borough at more than $2 million total.

A lawsuit by the city of Seldovia alleges that Precious Earth president Greg Davis or someone with his authorization cordoned off part of a Seldovia thoroughfare that Davis says encroaches on his property. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also says Davis started unauthorized construction of a road through tidal waters, and dumped peat and gravel into a wetland without a permit in the process of excavating a pond.

It's a conspicuous operation in Seldovia, a close-knit town on the Kenai Peninsula across the bay from Homer, accessible only by boat or plane, with just 255 residents as of the 2010 census.

But Davis, who has been a developer for more than 35 years and calls himself a retired farmer, won't say much of anything about what his plans are for the properties.

"I have purchased property in Seldovia and my plan is to enjoy it," Davis said in January. When asked about the possibilities for the land, he said, "They are endless. But I am not willing to share any of those with you at this time."

Much of the land he owns -- scattered from the center of town to south of the Seldovia Slough and farther north in Seldovia Village -- is undeveloped and full of greenery, a Kenai Peninsula Borough property map shows.

In recent months, residents have become more concerned with Davis' actions.

"Seldovia welcomes people who want to come be a part of our community," said Dianne Gruber, who has lived in Seldovia for 36 years. "Mr. Davis has not left the impression of wanting to be a part of our community. He's given every impression of wanting to invade our community."

Davis calls that "utter nonsense" and "hyperbole."

At a city council meeting in January, residents questioned activities related to properties owned by Davis. Seldovia Police Chief Hal Henning even requested a state trooper attend the meeting because "it was a hot-button issue," he said. "We didn't think anything was going to happen, but we just thought we were better safe than sorry."

In particular, residents had questions about construction of an unauthorized road to Backers Island, and also voiced frustrations about Davis' alleged blockage of part of a Rocky Street right-of-way.

After purchasing property along Rocky Street in 2014, Davis had the land surveyed last year and said the right-of-way encroached on his property, according to court records.

Around December 2015, "Davis or a party acting with his knowledge and authorization" used traffic delineators to block off the part of the street that he said encroaches upon his property, court records show.

Joe Levesque, an attorney representing the city of Seldovia, wrote a letter asking Davis and his friend Zane Henning to remove objects that were "barricading" the roadway in December, and when they didn't, the city filed a lawsuit against Davis, his company, his ex-wife Denise Davis (treasurer of Precious Earth), and Zane Henning and Valerie Henning (no relation to police chief Hal Henning).

In a letter back to Levesque's office, Davis said that neither he nor Zane Henning were obstructing the road, and also said that he would forward correspondence from Levesque to the Alaska Bar Association "in preparation for the complaint I intend to file against you for bullying, harassment and vexatious litigation at the behest of (City Manager Tim) Dillon using taxpayer funds." Davis said that the traffic delineators were only ever on his property.

Dillon -- who was retiring as city manager Wednesday -- and Levesque declined to comment for this story.

The city is claiming in court that the piece of property in question is a public right-of-way, under the reasoning that it's already been used that way as part of Rocky Street for more than 10 years. Davis would still own the land, though he has said in an email to the Seldovia police chief that the city is "trying to steal" it.

The court case is ongoing. While the delineators that the city said obstructed the road were moved, a judge still needs to decide if the city's removal of them was deserved. If not, they can be put back up.

Zane Henning said they were put up because of a neighbor near Davis' property whose vehicles and other items protruded into the street. Davis said that caused people to drive over onto his property, and he doesn't understand why the city doesn't also take issue with cars protruding into the road.

Another point of contention has been a road Davis is building through tidal waters of the Seldovia Slough. The road leads to Backers Island, which is actually a peninsula that juts into the water just southwest of mainland Seldovia. Davis also put peat and gravel into a wetland in the process of excavating a pond.

But both of those activities were unauthorized, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager Katie McCafferty said Davis was in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

The Army Corps has since issued the company the proper permit for the 500-foot road to Backers Island and for another road Davis had already built through a wetland, McCafferty said, adding that Davis is working on restoring the wetland. Under the permit, the road to Backers Island will be temporary to facilitate work to stabilize the bank at the north end of the peninsula.

Coastal erosion on Backers Island is starting to get close to property Davis owns there, and stabilization will help slow erosion caused by wind and waves, McCafferty said.

Davis said he was not aware there was any problem with building the road or excavating the pond.

"I didn't know that I needed permission from my government to put my rock on my rock, on my own property," he said. "I apologize that I was not aware that it was illegal for me to dig a hole on my own property and put the dirt next to that hole. I had no idea anything so absurd could exist. But it does."

Property rights and public interest

In many of their conversations and correspondence with residents and officials in Seldovia, Davis' and Zane Henning's focus has been on property rights.

"I want to remind everybody of our fundamental property rights in the United States of America," Henning said at the January city council meeting. "Our property rights are a privilege firmly embedded into our constitutional law, and it goes locally, to the borough, the state and to the federal government. Personal property lines should be known so all involved are clear on where to place buildings, fences and roads. When property boundaries are known, the owner can choose who makes use of it."

Davis and Zane Henning are interested in building a cabin on the land that was blocked along Rocky Street, or parking vehicles there, Zane said at the meeting, but some residents still took issue with the property-rights refrains.

"It seems more apparent to the rest of us that the clear reason (you're blocking the land) is trying to make a point: 'I have property rights and you can't violate them,' " Seldovia resident Ruth Sensenig said at the meeting.

Davis has also taken issue with a Seldovia family, the Higmans, who have frequently used a trail that crosses through a property he owns to get to their own property.

Nick Torres, assistant district attorney with the Kenai District Attorney's Office, said that he declined to pursue charges of criminal trespassing against the Higmans.

"The allegation was the family was trespassing 3 feet into (Davis') land, on the beach. Even assuming that were true, that's such a small thing," Torres said. "I don't know if it is true and it would be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in court. With the budget being what it is, that's not one of the cases we're looking to take."

Davis responded to the lack of charges in an email to the Seldovia police chief.

"Your unwillingness to enforce state laws as you expressed this evening may result in physical violence as I try to prevent the (Higmans') open, notorious and continuous trespass over my land and I wanted to preemptively go on record to show the corner you and the DA have pinned me in," he wrote.

Bretwood Higman said that Davis has been "volatile" in his interactions with him. (Higman's wife, Erin McKittrick, is a regular Alaska Dispatch News contributor.)

"It seems, clearly, that he's threatening us with violence," Higman said. "That was the end of the open conversation. I don't think there's any way we could have a conversation with him."

Other conflicts

Davis doesn't know why some residents seem to have a problem with him, especially when he doesn't live in the town full time. He said that in the past seven years, he has lived in Seldovia for probably nine months, and that he lives "in several places," with Seldovia being one of them.

"I'm sensitive to other people using my property because if I don't stop them, then they take it from me," he said by phone. "I don't want the Higmans to keep using my property in an open, continuous and hostile manner. … I'm certainly not interested in inflicting violence, but how do I keep somebody off my property who refuses to stay off?"

Davis said the city is harassing him with the lawsuit, and did not respond to his requests to remove a traffic sign from his property. He's also frustrated the city won't sell him a specific property near his home, and that the city has yet to rebuild a set of public access stairs -- stairs that facilitated access to private properties, including Davis' home -- that it tore down last year due to safety concerns. In the meantime, Davis has permission to use the parking lot of a nearby church to access his home, the city clerk said. The city expects to open a request for proposals this week to rebuild the stairs.

There's been another notable effect of all the recent tension: Seldovia City Council meetings are better-attended than they have been in the past decade, Dianne Gruber, the longtime Seldovia resident, said.

"We just want to show solidarity. That's the action Seldovia is taking," Gruber said. "And I believe it's a powerful action to take. The simple act of solidarity, that's what a small community is all about."