Santa Rosa has a history of making regrettable decisions, lord knows, and this series, “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER,” delves into just the cascading series of failures leading up to construction of the shopping mall, which was the ultimissimo mistake. But in our big book of blunders there’s one small chapter where the town didn’t pick the worst possible option – although it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
The project we were trying so hard to screwup was (once again) Courthouse Square, and this attempt started in 1966, the same year we tore down the courthouse. Immediately following that we stabbed a four-lane street through the middle and declared that the western sliver of what remained would now be called “Old Courthouse Square.” That part of the story was explored in the previous article, “TEARING APART ‘THE CITY DESIGNED FOR LIVING’“.
All of that had been done under the authority of Santa Rosa’s Urban Renewal Agency (URA), an unelected five member body which had broad powers for redeveloping all of downtown Santa Rosa, as also discussed in that article. As a first step that year the county had sold all of Courthouse Square (plus the county garage and jail) to the URA for $400k, but the county only expected to be paid half of that, considering the new street and west side of the Square as a donation. To raise the remaining $200k, the plan was that the city would sell the east side of the Square to a developer. “For Sale: 26,000 sq. Feet,” read the URA marketing blurb, with an asking price of $305k.
But a year passed with only a single bid: Eureka Federal Savings offered $260k (can’t have enough massive bank buildings squatting on prime downtown locations). Potential buyers found the city’s right to sell the property was…uncertain, to say the least.
This was hardly the first time questions about ownership of the Square were raised; you could say it was Sonoma County’s oldest parlor game, going back to just after the Civil War (see sidebar).
THAT TROUBLESOME GIFT
The town was founded, as everyone knows, in 1854 by Barney Hoen & Co. and Julio Carrillo. They also donated a couple of acres for a central plaza, with the company providing the eastern half and Julio giving the western side. The notarized Oct. 23, 1854 dedication document stated “the public square…[is] donated to and for the use and benefit of Sonoma County forever…”
At that moment Carrillo was one of the wealthiest men in Sonoma county, but Fortuna did not smile upon him long. Around Christmas of 1867, Julio found himself unable to feed his family (12 kids!) because he didn’t have enough credit left with storekeepers to buy a meager sack of flour. “Stung to the quick, in the heat of his indignation he re-deeded half of the Plaza,” wrote historian Robert Thompson, attempting to sell it to three local men for $300, as told in “COURTHOUSE SQUARE FOR SALE, CHEAP.”
The first news about the “re-deed” appeared in the Santa Rosa paper shortly after New Year’s Day, 1868, when it was also discovered that the 1854 document was never recorded – an oversight which was immediately corrected, albeit 13 years late. Still, the men who claimed to now own some of the most valuable property in town persisted, building a shack on the plaza in the middle of the night (it was torn down the next day). They tried to do it again in 1870, but it was also knocked down immediately as the town council rushed through an ordinance explicitly making it illegal to put up a building in the plaza.
In the 1870s Santa Rosa acted like they owned the place, as the Common Council passed more ordinances about the plaza and made improvements: Gates must be kept closed (“Is it not astonishing that some people will be so careless as to leave the gates of our Plaza open after they have passed through, so that cows and other animals can get in?” – Sonoma Democrat, Feb. 26, 1870), liquor and cussing were banned and new benches were added along with a flagpole.
The next dust-up came in 1883, when county supervisors decided we needed a new courthouse – the one at the current location of Exchange Bank was a leaky, plaster-cracked mess. Santa Rosa insisted it should be built in the middle of the Plaza. Petaluma objected, and offered to built it in their town; Santa Rosa founders Hahman and Hoen objected, saying it had been gifted with the clear intent of it remaining a park; even District Attorney Thomas Geary opined “the county had no more right to put a building there than they had on the county road.” The squabble ended only when Santa Rosa sent the Supervisors a resolution “surrendering the possession of the plaza.” (For more, see “HOW COURTHOUSE SQUARE TORE SONOMA COUNTY APART.”)
But at the time the Petaluma Argus began sewing doubt that the plaza might not be owned by the city OR the county – everything about the title to the plaza land was unclear. What did “use and benefit of Sonoma County” mean legally? Apparently Julio was truthful in saying there was no deed or other paperwork.
After that the issue lay dormant until 1953, when the Planning Commission produced a review of possible new sites for the courthouse. The County Taxpayers’ Association shot back with a 25-page critique which included this point: “It is reliably reported…should it be used for other than a Courthouse or a park, the title will revert to the heir of the donor”. In his writeup on the group’s response, PD reporter Fred Fletcher commented, “this has been rumored in the Courthouse for years.”
The URA certainly knew about the problems. A few years earlier while they were hashing out ideas about where to put the new city hall/civic center, a site selection committee was appointed with Judge Hilliard Comstock as chairman. When they were considering the Square he looked into the title issue and reported that although the county felt it owned the Square because of its long use, the descendants of Julio Carrillo et. al. might have a case to demand it back if it were now sold as private property.
“Help us clear the title,” URA member O. E. Christensen asked mayor Hugh Codding in a June, 1967 meeting. “We can go from there. We can advertise the property, but not consummate the title. Untie our hands then we can move.” Codding offered to help. In the meantime they seeded the east side with grass, since development was a year or two away. Later Skylark Nursery loaned sixteen magnolia and cedar trees in containers to dress up the place a bit. The very next day they were blown over by high winds and rolled out into the street.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the new four-lane road our new, dinky, “Old Courthouse Square” was dedicated with fanfare. Mayor Codding predicted the citizenry would become “more aware and more proud of this historic center of the city of Santa Rosa” as a result. Supervisor Robert Rath commented they were “revering back to perhaps what was in the mind of Mr. Carrillo when the property was dedicated to public use in 1853” (wrong year, and nope). Some descendants of Julio Carrillo were present at the dedication and wrote a letter to the PD that they were “surprised how the actual facts could be so conveniently omitted.”
Around then, talk began about the east side of the square. Maybe it was because the thousand or so people at that September dedication looked across the street at the vacant lot and wondered why that couldn’t be a public park, too. Gaye LeBaron had an item in her social column commenting that people around town were musing about putting a statue of Burbank over there, or bocce ball courts, or something else. “It isn’t so much what the people want, it’s what they don’t want,” she wrote. “And lots of them don’t want a building on that square.”
Battle lines were being drawn. On the side wanting a big honking bank was the URA, the Downtown Development Association and the Press Democrat. The PD probably did not win many converts by reproducing the URA’s site plan shown below. Not only did it show the proposed building’s footprint would dwarf all retail spaces downtown, but the illustration’s caption pointed out there would still be plenty of open space around (shown here in black). In an editorial, the PD went so far as to suggest the town already had too many parks and bits of greenery: “Between Fremont Park, Juilliard Park, the existing park on the westerly side of Old Courthouse Square, and the landscaping scheduled within the urban redevelopment area, Downtown Santa Rosa already may have received more than its fair share of the city funds available for places for people to enjoy, and for children to play.”
The Press Democrat wandered further into the weeds with an editorial claiming it would cost the city $800,000 to make it a park. (Estimating $450k in lost tax revenue + $350k to buy it from the county and create a concrete-paved plaza like the westerly side of the Square.) Mayor Codding called the guesstimate ridiculous and the editorial “an insult to my intelligence.” Codding, who was the most vocal advocate for preserving it as a park, had also asked the Board of Supervisors to consider donating the land.
By the start of 1968, every civic and service group in or near Santa Rosa was off the fence on the park question – even the Chamber of Commerce opposed development – and only the PD was surprised when the City Council voted to ask the Supervisors to donate it (Codding was absent that day, as ol’ Hugh was taking time off to shoot at bears in Alaska).
In the background during all this, the Quest for Title was slogging into its second year. Initially the county and city/URA were all meeting in efforts to settle it until the County Counsel decided to split off, so now there were two separate efforts to unravel that 115 year old knot.
(Sidenote: While doing this research the news cycle was paying much attention to a NASCAR pileup and playing in slow motion the last seconds before the crash over and over, and I thought, gee, how timely.)
The Supervisors were in a grand pickle. For two fiscal years now, their budget counted on receiving $198k for the east side of the Square. (Why $198k and not an even $200k was never explained, as far as I can tell.) That represented six percent of a year’s county tax revenue – a huge writeoff.
Over the course of that summer the Supes mulled and pondered what to do, relying upon the advice of County Counsel Richard Ramsey, although some of his suggestions – as reported in the PD – seemed unsound and aimed mainly at provoking Santa Rosa. He said the county “certainly is entitled to use the property for whatever it wants” and the Supervisors could take it over and sell it themselves. Or they could sue the city for the $198k and the title, while also assuring them there was “no question” the county could get a “marketable title” to the property. There was a closed session and another speckled with considerable bitter comments.
The Board of Supervisors decided to sue the city of Santa Rosa and its Urban Renewal Agency, demanding $800k + interest (about $6 million today). They arrived at that figure by claiming damages because the market value of the land was “substantially impaired” because the city “refuse[d] to cooperate in transferring title” (!) and had “permanently seized possession” of the Square, which had deprived the county of using its legal property. Oh, lawyers.
Efforts to negotiate a settlement went nowhere. Codding suggested the city deed everything back to the county, which would have mucked up the ownership issue further still (which I think was his intent). A Press Democrat editorial bemoaned that a drawn-out legal fight could leave the east side in limbo for years, neither the city or county maintaining it as the place deteriorated into the “Sonoma County Memorial Weed Patch.”
Our story finally winds up in 1970, with a Believe-it-or-not! twist you probably aren’t expecting. The lawsuit itself was settled fairly amicably; Santa Rosa paid the county $50,000 and gave them some land southwest of town which was outside of city limits. The agreement stated the city would have to pay $48k more if the east portion of the Square ever became something other than public use.
As for the question of title…
While the Supervisors were debating whether or not to sue in 1968, they split into two camps: One side simply wanted that $198k and said the city was in breach of contract. The other Supes’ position was that they would like to donate the land to Santa Rosa, but their hands were tied until the title was resolved. But all of them had apparently forgotten the county had previously quitclaimed the western side and roadway back in 1966 – an inconvenient fact which was brought up in the PD’s coverage. In other words, the county had already declared they were no longer claiming any form of ownership to two-thirds of the original plaza, only the remnant on the eastern side.
In the end, the county wanted money for something they couldn’t prove they legally had. Who knows what County Counsel Ramsey was thinking in promising the Supervisors he could obtain a “marketable title” in court, although at least one of his predecessors had also made the claim. Maybe Ramsey had dreams of prancing before Supreme Courts in Sacramento or Washington, making the case that Julio Carrillo and the others never meant to donate it to the people of Sonoma county but rather the county government (which practically didn’t yet exist in 1854).
Thus the one thing everyone expected to happen, didn’t – the title of the Plaza/Square was still unresolved as the county and city settled their spat in 1970. The troublesome ancient document was left to gather dust in the Recorder’s office as everyone backed away from it slowly.
Was this ever resolved in the fifty years since? Not as far as I can tell – it seems that it’s all just been forgotten, like one of the dangerous treasures buried deep in the Raiders of the Lost Ark’s warehouse.