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County: $4 million unpaid in lot-splitting

Former Planning Commission member denies scheme
By: Jenifer Gee, Journal Staff Writer
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Placer County counsel alleges a former county planning commissioner and two other defendants evaded $4 million in land development fees, according to a civil lawsuit it filed in November. Michelle Ollar-Burris is accused of conspiring with Grass Valley consultant George Wasley and Sacramento developer and attorney Thomas Van Horne to subdivide several lots without going through a final subdivision map process. A final map process is more costly than the parcel maps approved for the properties in question. Specifically, the county suit charges that the three violated the state Subdivision Map Act, county planning ordinance and state business and professions code. Last year, the county hired special counsel Richard Crabtree to investigate the matter. In its discovery, the county estimates the cost that the land developers in the suit avoided by not following property rules is about $4 million, according to Anthony La Bouff, Placer County Counsel. “The county is seeking to enforce the rule of law and to ensure those in the business of dividing land all play by the same rules on a level playing field,” La Bouff said. “Otherwise, there would be a significant business advantage to those individuals who sidestep the rules.” La Bouff added that the monetary figure is a potential aspect of the suit’s outcome and it doesn’t mean the county would receive that money directly. Ollar-Burris’ attorney Michael Vinding said claims that his client and the other two defendants violated the law are “categorically untrue.” Vinding, along with Brigit Barnes, Wasley’s attorney, and Ed Duckers, Van Horne’s attorney, all said the county approved about 800 parcel maps the same as Ollar-Burris’ between 2000 and 2006, the same time period Ollar-Burris is accused of violating the map act. “I think the important thing to remember is the county approved every single one of these parcel maps,” Duckers said. “They’re now coming back after the fact and giving us the Louis from Casablanca routine.” Barnes added that a parcel map approval is an extensive review process with multiple county agencies and departments filing reports and making visits to sites before a map is approved. She asserts that all of the necessary fees were paid on each parcel. “None of the districts lost any money,” Barnes said. La Bouff said the county does not believe there are others who’ve conducted similar lot-splitting activities to those of Ollar-Burris’. “We have no evidence that the activity that took place here is common,” La Bouff said. “We’re not aware of anyone else that has gone to the length we have discovered in these circumstances to avoid the rules.” He said the “core allegation” from the county’s perspective is conspiracy to commit fraud. “If someone else is doing it, nobody has brought it to our attention,” La Bouff said. La Bouff said discovery would continue in the case. He said the fact that the defendants are protected under Fifth Amendment privileges will “slow down the case, but the case will continue.” He said a case management conference is set for later this month. Duckers, Van Horne and Barnes also said they are continuing with the discovery process. Duckers said he has subpoenaed Richard Crabtree and others for their testimony. Vinding added that former planning director Fred Yeager has also been subpoenaed. La Bouff said the county made a “knowing choice” to limit its litigation to the three defendants listed in the suit. He said the county is not pursuing subsequent purchasers and transactions. “Our goal is not to disturb the land transactions that occur in the county, but our goal is to try to bring attention to and focus on three individuals who did not follow the rules,” La Bouff said. When asked whether or not they believe the county’s lawsuit is politically motivated, Vinding spoke on behalf of Duckers and Barnes. “Absolutely,” Vinding said. When asked the same question, La Bouff strongly denied that possibility. He said the suit was not filed during an election year. He added that District 5 Supervisor Bruce Kranz, who appointed Ollar-Burris, was part of the unanimous vote by supervisors to remove Ollar-Burris from the planning commission and to hire special counsel to investigate her. “I think it’s unfair to say it’s politically driven and against the Fifth District supervisor,” La Bouff said. “He voted for it three times.” The Journal’s Jenifer Gee can be reached at or post a comment at auburnjournal.com.