They say you can’t fight city hall, but what happens when city hall fights you?
And for dubious reasons to say the least.
“I don’t understand why the city of San Marcos is doing this to me,” said longtime Twin Oaks animal rescue and ranch center owner Shera Sandwell, walking among her horses and community-friendly 10-acre open space this week.
“I have been providing, and preserving, a beautiful place for the community for 20 years,” Sandwell continued, “and now it seems the city is trying to destroy me and take my land.”
After several years of what Sandwell termed harassment designed to drive her off her land to pave the way for multimillion dollar home development lucrative to San Marcos tax collections, city officials on Dec. 13, 2019 filed a 16-page complaint with 25 attachments at Superior Court North County Division against Sandwell and her community ranch.
The complaint alleges Sandwell violated municipal codes by holding events at her ranch without proper permits and licenses. City officials are seeking over $400,000 in damages and penalties along with other costs including attorneys fees.
That’s more than enough in these pandemic-afflicted times to force a single mom just managing to make it with mortgage and ranch costs off her longtime home, allowing city officials to take her land and sell it to developers.
“Shera used her property to hold public events for a long time,” said Jeremiah Graham, Sandwell’s attorney. “She also did weddings there without any issues. What Shera believes happened in this case is the city wanted to put in storm drainage for other properties, but they didn’t have an easement. So, they looked for other things they could pursue on her to do that.”
Historic property, community values
Sandwell’s Bheau View Ranch has been an integral fiber in the San Marcos civic fabric since 2001 when Sandwell entered into a lease-and-own arrangement for what was then a dilapidated, abandoned 10-acre property, just across Cox Road from the historic Bidwell House.
The property was located in the Twin Oaks Valley area of San Marcos where the first Native American village was located over 1,000 years ago because of the abundance of oak trees, water and flat land, according to area historians.
The Bidwell House — relocated in 2004 by truck to nearby Walnut Grove Historical Park, a park Sandwell was essential in creating through her San Marcos Parks Committee leadership — was built mostly of redwood in 1890 by Jacob Uhland, an original Twin Oaks settler. Colonel John Bidwell bought the property about 1921.
The entire area around Sandwell’s property was undeveloped, but envisioned as a sort of Rancho Santa Fe-lite with multimillion dollar homes and fancy gated communities, all contributing building fees and top-dollar taxes to San Marcos civic coffers.
As Sandwell created what people termed an oasis in that developmental desert, upscale homes sprouted like mushrooms in the once-empty fields surrounding her valuable acreage.
Real estate developers and contractors, some allegedly with intimate relationships with certain San Marcos officials and leaders, constantly tried to find ways to separate Sandwell from her valuable 10 acres on the east side of Twin Oaks by the historic Merriam Mountains.
Sandwell worked with mortgage companies and brokers through the California real estate challenges of the mid-2000s while running equestrian summer and training camps and lessons for kids and adults, programs for the Girl Scouts and other local schools and agencies, arts and health retreats.
Land conservator and keepsake ranch hosted many charitable and community events and created a non-profit 501.c Arts, Wellness and Equestrian (AWE) Foundation.
Sandwell also operated an animal rescue saving older horses from neglect and demise along with a variety of other animals including dogs, pigs, goats, chickens, and abandoned creatures like Sammy the Muskrat, an abandoned possum who now serves as unofficial ranch mascot.
Sandwell’s community commitment included hosting family and cultural events including small weddings and fundraising parties. Professional event managers and wedding planners handled these events with Sandwell donating her ranch as a venue to help out neighbors and causes.
“She used her property for a long time for well-publicized events without any issues,” said Graham, Sandwell’s attorney. “We met with city attorneys and tried to settle the case offering to refrain from holding any weddings in the future,”
Graham continued. “Instead, they are continuing to litigate against her. Her belief is they are doing this in retaliation for her refusal to grant an easement to them for storm drainage for nearby properties.”
Graham added: “This is causing (Sandwell) a good deal of financial stress. We are scheduled for trial on Oct. 15 in North County Superior Court Dept. N-31 before Judge Blaine Bowman.”
After several requests for comment, longtime San Marcos City Attorney Helen Holmes Peak e-mailed:
“I am in receipt of your inquiry regarding Bheau View Ranch. Unfortunately, we are not able to comment on a pending litigation matter. Best regards, Helen.”
Said Graham in summation: “People in the community need to know that the city is, in effect, driving (Sandwell) off her land.”
Community outrage ensues
Sandwell’s cause has resonated throughout the community with numerous friends, neighbors and even Hollywood celebrities who flock to the ranch for its health and wellness properties and relaxing ambiance rallying to the cause.
“The San Marcos City Council is notorious,” said Jamie Palmer, a San Marcos native and longtime resident. “We have a past history of them land grabbing and violating property rights.”
“I’ve spent 40 years in Twin Oaks Valley, and my father spent even more,” Palmer continued. “The City Council never recognizes individual landowners rights. They always want to come in and steal a certain amount of property to do this, or that, or the other thing. They’ve been doing it for years and been proven wrong many, many times.”
Olivia Tosic, president and CEO of The Sky Alert Foundation for the Missing, said, “Bheau View Ranch has been a staple in our community for over 20 years. It is shameful that Shera Sandwell, an upstanding member of this wonderful community, and avid member of the trails advisory board, was shut down by the city so abruptly.
“And for what,” Tosic continued. “To come in with bulldozers to destroy this lovely 10- acre knoll to build another housing community and destroy the amazing natural beauty this ranch has to offer? This would be a travesty.”
Rallying to save the ranch
Members of the Hollywood and Malibu communities have rallied to Sandwell’s defense. Mariel Hemingway, Nia Peeples, the late Jamie Sams, to name a few, and other celebs who have frequented the ranch for its health and wellness benefits have supported Bheau View’s efforts for years.
Billy Wirth has been an especially close friend and fervent supporter of Sandwell and the community resource that city of San Marcos officials seek to destroy through their pernicious campaign of harassment and litigation.
Wirth has a permanent place in pop culture, portraying Dwayne, the “death by stereo” vampire in the iconic 1980s film, “The Lost Boys”. Other famous roles include: “Boys on the Side,” “Body Snatchers,” “War Party”. His television roles include appearances on shows such as “Tales from the Crypt,” “Sex and the City,” “CSI,” “Chicago PD,” “Scorpion” — and recently “Godfather of Harlem” (with Forest Whitaker).
As a director, Wirth is best known for his critically acclaimed feature film, “MacArthur Park” (Sundance Competition), as well as his directorial debut with the short film, “Kismet,” written and produced by Sheri Sussman – starring actors such as Stephanie Niznik, Garry Marshall, and Mariette Hartley.
“We have been working with the ranch for 10 years shooting and documenting it,” Wirth said. “Our plan is to continue developing a docuseries about the ranch and all the humanitarian and COVID-related work done there. We are now shopping the show. It has piqued network interest.”
What next for the historic ranch
Just this week, apparent harassment by San Marcos officials continued in earnest. Somebody called in a complaint to the San Diego Humane Society about Sandwell’s humanitarian efforts to rescue and maintain older horses.
Humane Society enforcement personnel came to her ranch Monday, June 28 asking “to see her papers” in the form of a driver’s license and identification, asking a series of questions about her personal affairs and business interests.
While a smoking gun did not directly strike San Marcos officials, Humane Society officials’ questions suspiciously centered on a subject that normally would fall outside the purview of animal control issues. Officials grilled her about event permits and whether she continued to hold wedding events along with the specific nature of her business interests, Sandwell said.
With the trial set for October, Tosic, Wirth and others asked community members to contact San Marcos City Hall at (760) 744-1050. Rebecca Jones is mayor. Sharon Jenkins is mayor pro-tem. City Council members are Ed Musgrove, Maria Nunez and Randy Walton. E-mails follow this format for each official: email@example.com.
“I’m hoping everyone will agree to stop threatening Ms. Sandwell with their politics,” Tosic said earnestly. “They are violating her rights by not allowing her to continue what she’s been doing with the community for two decades. We ask that everyone in this lovely community of San Marcos call in and write to City Hall. Please get involved in saving Bheau View Ranch.”