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Former planning commissioner fights civil suit charges

Attorneys question delay in bringing suit forward
By: Jenifer Gee Journal Staff Writer
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A former Placer County planning commissioner will face charges brought against her in a county civil suit Tuesday morning. The suit, filed by the county in late November, alleges fraud and misrepresentation in a series of land deals involving Michelle Ollar-Burris. The suit also names Thomas Van Horne, a Sacramento attorney and developer, and George Wasley, a consultant on some of Ollar-Burris’ parcels. On Tuesday, parties involved are expected to gather at Roseville’s Bill Santucci Justice Center for a hearing on the matter. Ollar-Burris has maintained from the beginning of the suit and prior investigations that she is innocent. Ollar-Burris is accused of conspiring with Wasley and Van Horne to subdivide several lots without going through a final subdivision map process, which is more costly than a parcel map that was 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. Wasley’s attorney, Brigit Barnes, said Wasley was only a consultant on parcel maps and not a property owner. Therefore he had no stake in the lot splits, Barnes said. “The greatest injustice is to George Wasley because he has no financial stake in this,” Barnes said. The state Subdivision Map Act says a tentative and final map is necessary when a lot has five or more parcels. It adds that it is illegal to further split parcels into smaller lots, which is referred to as “four-by-fouring” or “quartering,” Michael Vinding, Ollar-Burris’ attorney, explained. The act is designed to prevent several parties from conspiring to create a large subdivision without paying the necessary mitigation fees. The suit states that Ollar-Burris, Wasley and Van Horne conspired to violate the act on properties on Sun Valley Road in Weimar, East Weimar Cross Road in Colfax, Whitehawk Ridge Road in Foresthill, Cuckoo Court in Applegate and Moffett Ranch Road in Colfax. Vinding explained there are actually only two maps in question that Ollar-Burris split. One is property at 720 East Weimar Crossroads and the other is at Moffett Ranch. Each was legally split into four separate parcels, Vinding said. “Five is the magic number,” Vinding said. He pointed to a 1972 Attorney General’s opinion that states when an owner divides a lot in four smaller parcels and sells one or more of the parcels, and that owner then divides the parcel, there is no subdivision. If five or more parcels are created, then the property owner needs to complete subdivision requirements. “Parcel maps procedures are considerably cheaper and simpler, and parcel maps can usually be processed more quickly than tentative and final subdivision maps,” said Richard Crabtree, a Chico attorney hired by the county to conduct the investigation, in a prior Journal article. Vinding said one of the questions he is asking of the county is if Ollar-Burris’ lot split was illegal, why were her maps approved? Vinding and Barnes are also seeking an answer from the county as to why they didn’t change their policy concerning parcel maps? They said numerous other maps similar to Ollar-Burris’ have been and still are being approved. “Our purpose is not getting someone in trouble, the point is the law is being unfairly applied,” Barnes said. Barnes also wanted to clarify that Ollar-Burris has used just three names when buying and selling properties: a personal name, a married name and a name for a trust. “It’s really unfair because what the county tries to do is say she uses a whole bunch of names,” Barnes said. Vinding said he is also questioning the delay in bringing the case forward. In January 2005, then-director of the Placer County Planning Department Fred Yeager received an anonymous letter making complaints about Ollar-Burris’ real estate activities. He stated in a March deposition that he later discovered Geri Bray, Ollar-Burris’ former divorce attorney, sent the letter. He then met with Bray and a woman whose name he could not recall to review documents about Ollar-Burris’ lot-splitting activities. He said he did not remember if he was left copies of the documents, according to his deposition. Yeager then took the letter to the Placer County District Attorney’s Office a “couple months later.” He said he also discussed the matter with County Counsel Anthony LaBouff but did not ask him to investigate it because the letter had been given to the District Attorney’s Office. At the time, Deputy District Attorney Robert McInerney reviewed the letter but ultimately decided not take action because of a lack of expertise in subdivision map act law on his part, as stated in his March deposition. He said he solicited help from the Planning Department but ultimately was unable to meet with an employee. He further stated that after Yeager’s retirement, no one from the Planning Department or Yeager’s replacement, Michael Johnson, pursued the matter with the office. It wasn’t until November 2007 that the county filed its civil suit. “It raises the question, ‘why wait this long?’” Vinding said. “It has nothing to do with split property, it has to do with political motivation.” When asked about why the county delayed in filing a suit, Valerie Flood, supervising county counsel, declined to comment. Flood said prior Journal articles portrayed the county’s position and there was nothing further to add at this point. “Nothing’s really changed for us,” Flood said. “We still think it’s an appropriate lawsuit to file. We’re just moving forward with discovery as we would with any other lawsuit.” Prior Journal articles contributed to this report. The Journal’s Jenifer Gee can be reached at jeniferg@goldcountrymedia.com or post a comment.