Tommy York’s home in Shelter Cove burned down in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve of 2009.
Everyone made it out of the fire safely, but the house itself was a total loss. Before the flames consumed his home York was able to save two chainsaws, a leafblower, and a stack of art he had made. But that was all.
"Everything else is still there," York said.
That is how the site of the York family’s former home, 606 Redwood Road, ended up on a list of nuisance properties submitted to Humboldt County’s code enforcement unit by the Shelter Cove Resort Improvement District (RID). Four years later, what is left of his home is considered solid waste, and county code limits homeowners to 200 square feet of outdoor storage per property.
Neighbors have complained.
"I’m in survival mode," York said, "and cleaning up that burnt house is not at the top of my priority list."
It was well-insured but his bank used the insurance money to pay off the loan, cut their losses and walk away. York doesn’t have that option.
He said he expects the cleanup to cost just under $20,000.
There is a hand-painted "for sale" sign nailed to the trunk of a tree next to York’s old driveway. The lot went to auction earlier this year but nobody bid on it. It is an as-is purchase and the buyer will have to assume responsibility for the cleanup.
Shelter Cove was subdivided in 1965, and some have called that deal a scam.
There are roughly 650 homes and thousands of vacant lots. All of them are less than an acre in size, nestled in the steep hillsides of the Lost Coast. As a result, developing property there can come with serious challenges.
That may be why so many of Shelter Cove’s landowners there have stopped paying their property taxes. Of the 62 properties in Humboldt County that went to auction in 2013 due to delinquent tax payments, 90% were in Shelter Cove.
Only 17 properties actually sold and 12 were in Shelter Cove. Most of those were purchased for well under $5,000, and one was only $1,750. That is unusual for coastal real estate in California, and it has created a neighborhood where housing standards vary widely.
Some residents live in fancy houses with an ocean view. Others live in yurts, RVs, and tents.
Most of the properties that went to auction this year never got a single bid, like Tommy York’s burned out house at 606 Redwood Drive. It is at the very top of the list of properties that the RID submitted to Humboldt County’s code enforcement unit, or CEU.
The list was generated after a contentious meeting of the Shelter Cove Resort Improvement District on Oct. 18, 2012 (See Redwood Times, Oct. 23, 2012). The RID board of directors, along with dozens of members of the public in attendance, urged the county to increase code-enforcement activity within the district’s boundaries.
Residents at that meeting were concerned with a variety of problems including marijuana grows, illegal grading, fires, and camping. Some properties had RVs or water tanks encroaching on the roadway. Excessive amounts of garbage and outdoor storage were also a factor.
Code enforcement works on a complaint-driven process, so the RID identified the top 15 nuisance properties and complained about them. That was nearly a year ago, and to date it’s unclear how much progress the county has made.
Michael Caldwell, a local businessman and RID board member, said that some of the nuisance properties have been cleaned up, but that has more to do with the end of pot-growing season than code enforcement efforts. He said he expects the problems associated with those properties to recur next year.
"This is a residential community with very clear guidelines for code enforcement regarding what you can and cannot do and they’re still difficult to get them enforced," Caldwell said. "We get nowhere, and it’s been this way for years."
He stressed the fact that Shelter Cove is a residential area. The parcels are small, just big enough for a house and a yard. It is not like the acreage you find elsewhere on the Lost Coast.
But once you get away from the luxury homes near Shelter Cove’s airport and golf-course, it is not unusual to see parcels with nothing but an RV or a greenhouse. Many are devoid of any housing whatsoever, and this time of year it seems like a ghost town. Caldwell attributes that to the end of the growing season, and the departure of Shelter Cove’s seasonal residents.
Many of the outraged locals who spoke out at last year’s meeting were concerned with marijuana grows, but that is not Caldwell’s issue. He said he is troubled by impacts on the watershed.
One property located at the intersection of Telegraph Creek Road and Wolverine Court had several greenhouses, RVs and a metal shipping container ("Abatement ordered for two properties in Shelter Cove Q zone," Redwood Times, Aug. 20, 2013). The list of complaints that the RID furnished to the code enforcement suggested that diesel had been delivered under cover of night, and used to power grow lights in the shipping container.
Caldwell said that this property was the most egregious code-violation on the list.
"This is our watershed," he said. "Telegraph Creek is our primary water source and they’re right on the water."
Just up Puma Road, there is a vacant lot with nothing but a bench and tire tracks leading to a tributary stream that feeds into Telegraph Creek. Someone constructed a dam there, and Caldwell believes the site is being used to pump out water and transport it to another location. District personnel discovered the dam and contacted the individual, who Caldwell described as hostile.
They called the sheriff, but it is not considered a criminal matter. There was not much the deputies could do.
"Last November when we had Sheriff Downey here," Caldwell said, "all he wanted to talk about was Prop 215. With all due respect, that’s not the issue. We understand 215, and that’s not the problem."
"We put in about $800,000 every year in property taxes to the county, and we feel like we don’t get a return," he added.
According to an internal update obtained through a California Public Records Act request this summer, the county’s documents indicate that six of the 15 properties on the RID’s list have been inspected and cleared by the code enforcement unit. Jeff Connor called that update "optimistic."
He is the county’s only code enforcement officer. Connor promptly returned a phone call in July, but his supervisors later denied the request for an interview. Either way, many of the documents and reports generated by the code enforcement unit are a matter of public record.
Much of what the county turned over to the Redwood Times consisted of hand-written records of Connor’s enforcement efforts, observing and documenting code violations on properties that had been the subject of a complaint. There were numerous photos depicting RVs that are clearly being lived in at least part-time, and greenhouses that were believed to have been constructed without building permits. There were also water storage tanks, hosing, and other materials associated with outdoor marijuana grows.
There are a lot of letters notifying property owners that their land has been the subject of complaint of a possible code violation, and many of those letters contain the following paragraph:
"Recreational Vehicles can only be used as residences in Manufactured Home Parks and Special Occupancy Parks. Your property is zoned R-1-Q-D-V (Residential Single Family) and does not allow for RVs to be used as residences in that zone and must be removed immediately. Any open-air storage must be limited to 200 square feet, and the storage of any household garbage must be stored in watertight containers with tight fitting lids and removed at least once a week."
All of the letters threatened to charge landowners with any costs incurred in remedying the code violation, and the wording became increasingly aggressive when landowners failed to respond.
"As you have avoided and failed to respond in any manner perhaps, more drastic measures are called for to enable us to remedy any violations," read one notice that planning technician Christian Nielsen sent to the York family in March. "It is your disregard of these notices that require these more drastic actions to abate a public nuisance."
Driving around town, apparent code violations seem to be fairly common. Open-air storage of boats, RVs and miscellaneous debris is visible from the roadway on numerous properties, especially the ones that appear to be occupied despite the absence of a house. These could resemble junk yards to some observers, but those conditions can be found so frequently that others might just as easily see them as well within community standards.
But there have been serious problems.
The records included a series of photographs documenting an incident on Shaller Court where a water-truck rolled over, subsequently falling several hundred feet into the ravine near Telegraph Creek. The driver was making a delivery to a site that could only be reached by using a sharp turn on a steep dirt road. A report from code enforcement officer Jeff Connor indicated that he inspected the site, and determined the road was graded without a permit.
Just how many of the nuisance properties on the CEU’s punch-list have been successfully abated is unclear. Most of the cases documented appeared to be works-in-progress, and it is hard to tell what things will look like when those works-in-progress are completed.
There is a memo from 2008 closing a case against someone named Joseph Damasius. The CEU’s investigation revealed no violation had taken place. They had the wrong assessor’s parcel number, or APN.
There was also a letter from Mike Greenwood, one of the previous owners of the nuisance property on Shaller Court where the water-truck rollover recently occurred. The letter was dated July, 2009. Greenwood appologized for building a greenhouse without the proper permits. He added that all structures had been dissassembled and hauled off to the dump.
According to county documents, that property currently belongs to Barbara Rippetoe of Ventura, CA, and it is still the subject of an ongoing code enforcement case. Green tarps stretched over some kind of structure can be seen through thick vegetation, and there are structures associated with agricultural use visible through the gate. The current owner had run a three-inch hose down to the roadway presumably so that water trucks no longer have to negotiate the steep, dangerous, unpermitted grade.
Tommy York still owns the burned house at 606 Redwood Road. He said it was the most beautiful home he had ever lived in. He hoped to use what is left of it in a controlled burn, which might reduce the volume and weight of the debris to be removed.
"The cost is in the dumpsters that have to be brought down from Fortuna. They’re expensive, and there’s a lot of heavy beams still left," York said.
In the meanwhile, Mr. York feels that he’s been treated fairly by the county.
"The code enforcement people have been lenient with me," he said. "They’ve been pretty understanding of my situation."
He is less enthusiastic about the Resort Improvement District and its board of directors, which in his opinion does not represent the actual population of Shelter Cove or its community standards.
"I think you should be able to store your boat on your property, or park your trailer there," York said.
"I personally like the fact that a young person can come down here, own a piece of property and make a place for themselves," he said, "because if you try to follow all the codes it out-prices 90% of the population. The only people who can afford to build here are the ones with a lot of money from somewhere else."
County code is black and white but talking to York it quickly became clear that not everyone in his community agrees on the definition of a nuisance. He pointed out that this is Southern Humboldt, and it is a pretty quirky place.
"The people who think certain things are nuisances shouldn’t have moved here in the first place," York said. "It’s never going to be Laguna Beach.”
1. The charred wreckage of Tommy York’s former home at 606 Redwood Rd., Shelter Cove.
2. A small, presumably illegal dam on a tributary to Telegraph Creek.
3. A small grow on Wolverine Court. The grow had already been harvested, the greenhouse tarps were down, and this photo was taken from the shoulder of the roadway. There was also a bunch of garbage on the roadway, including a carbon filter commonly used to minimize the smell associated with marijuana grows.