August 10, 2022

Google vs. Descendants of a Railroad Tycoon and Civil War General


There was just one problem: four unsold parcels of roadway left over from Billings, Peachy, and Naglee’s subdivision over 150 years earlier.

Two of the parcels are long and skinny—measuring about an acre. Google hopes to build a parking structure beneath one. The third, on what is now Barack Obama Boulevard, is a tenth of an acre. The fourth, tucked away in a dusty dead end, is only as big as four ping-pong tables. The legal status of all four plots is murky.

Google points to sections of California civil code as confirmation that it, or possibly the city of San Jose, owns the parcels, their bike lanes, parking spots, and asphalt. But the company remains worried about legal challenges from beyond the grave.

“Writing up legal descriptions was far less of a science back in the day,” says Nanci Klein, director of real estate for the city. “To my knowledge, Google’s extensive historical research did not yield anyone who could meet the criteria of controlling the property.”

Nevertheless, Google set about tracking down the original owner’s families. In February, it sent letters to 115 possible descendants of the three men, including Peter Adams, a product manager at a data center technology firm in Washington. Google believes Adams could be a remote descendant of Archibald Peachy, via Peachy’s son-in-law’s niece’s husband’s nephew.

In its letter to Adams, Google wrote that it was “in the process of cleaning up title” to the San Jose roads, and that it would pay Adams a “courtesy fee” if he filed a quitclaim deed that surrendered his rights and interest in the property and kept the deal strictly confidential. The $5,000 offered was almost an insult, according to one legal expert WIRED spoke with; another defendant described it as “a meaningless sum” in a court filing. Commercial plots in San Jose have recently sold for $2 million an acre, or more—albeit for traditional lots not cobbled together from roads and alleyways.

While the majority of those 115 descendants signed the quitclaim deed, Adams did not. Nor, presumably, did 33 other potential heirs to the original men. So Google sued them, in what is called a “quiet title” lawsuit. (Mark Zuckerberg used similar lawsuits in an effort to secure control of a 700-acre estate in Hawaii in 2017.)

“In order for Google to proceed with its development plans for the Project, fee title in the Subject Properties must be perfected in Google,” reads a lawsuit filed by Google and the City of San Jose in the Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara, in April.

A number of Frederick Billings’ descendants are still prominent, including a few who married into the Rockefeller family. Many of the defendants can claim direct descent from Peachy and Naglee. None of those contacted by WIRED wanted to comment on the case.

Others are proving trickier to track down. In May, Google and San Jose admitted in a filing that “despite reasonable diligence, [they] had been unable to find addresses or locations for a number of defendants,” and asked the court for extra time to serve their summonses.

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