Monday, December 12, 2005 | Jan Privatt went from three bedrooms to a small cot, from thousands of square feet to keeping dishes in the shower for lack of space. Her Christmas tree now sits in the dust in front of her trailer. The possessions she has gathered in the last two years lie stacked under flimsy canvas tents.
Two years after the Cedar fire swallowed huge swaths of San Diego County, many residents are still waiting to rebuild their homes. The road to normalcy has been strewn with obstacles for some fire victims: environmental health issues, property line disputes, and drawn-out waits for inspectors and county representatives.
A fortunate group has managed to navigate the complicated process of building a new home. However, the back roads of townships such as Ramona and Julian remain scattered with the trailers, caravans and half-built homes of those displaced by the fires.
“Each home was just such a different case. I just don’t think the county was equipped to handle all of the different cases,” said Bonnie Frede, who managed the Ramona Fire Research Center and worked with dozens of fire victims.
Privatt, quite literally, lost everything.
Once the proud owner of a small, 40-year-old mobile home park just off Mussey Grade Road near Ramona, Privatt now lives in a cramped trailer at the north end of her four-acre lot.
She has been told by the county’s Department of Environmental Health that she can’t re-establish her rental business.
The drainage on her plot is insufficient to support anything more than one dwelling. Any new buildings must be limited in size to the footprint of her old house.
Privatt doesn’t blame the county. She says the hands of local lawmakers are tied.
“They’re pretty much dictated to by Sacramento,” she said. “Sacramento passes the gosh-darndest rules.”
Privatt, like many, has found herself chained to a landholding with a lackadaisical history. Though the parcel once housed a thriving small business that played home to thousands of vacationers, the trailers she was renting weren’t legal according to modern California building codes. The septic tank Privatt had been using didn’t meet environmental standards, and her trailers were also positioned too close together and too close to the nearby road.
Privatt is not alone.
As state building codes and environmental standards have tightened over the decades, the homes and businesses of many rural San Diegans have slipped through the cracks, according to county staff. That wasn’t a problem, officials said, until the fires came through and people had to begin the process of re-building.
“You had situations where homes that were built in the ’50s and ’60s were actually built on someone else’s property,” said Jeff Murphy, chief of the building division of the county’s Department of Planning and Land Use. “We had a number of folks who wanted to rebuild right where they had their house, but we can’t issue a building permit if it sits on somebody else’s property.”
Property line issues are just part of the problem, Murphy said. Other residents like Privatt found that their sewage systems were woefully inadequate to meet the needs of their plans. There were also problems with buildings that had simply never been issued building permits or included additions that had never been permitted.
One county official, who requested anonymity because he is not allowed to speak with the media, said the county had been flooded by applications for building permits, site inspections and environmental health permits following the fires. The official said the county did the best job it could handling the inquiries, but that fire victims often became snarled up in the system.
“Lots of people went in all directions, to an architect, to a contractor,” he said. “There were lots of people who just didn’t understand the process.”
Murphy agreed. He said too many people tried to rebuild without consulting trained professionals, choosing instead to do things themselves, often with poor results.
However, not all the blame should lay at the feet of the landowners, Frebe said. She stressed that the county failed to inform fire victims how to proceed with rebuilding. Victims often had no idea the order in which to begin, she said. In the absence of guidance from the county, they relied instead on rumors and the advice of friends and neighbors, Frebe added.
Murphy defended the county’s record. He said his office hired 10 extra staff members to help process the increased numbers of applications and implemented some new procedures to speed things up. Fire victims were always allowed to jump to the front of the line and were given as much guidance as possible, he said.
However, according to the other county official, residents were poorly informed, not just by inspectors, but also by politicians. The official also said that some county politicians gave out erroneous information during press conferences, exacerbating the situation.
Rick Morgal, another Mussey Grade Road resident, said some people eventually simply gave up on the official procedures. He said a friend of his, frustrated with continued delays, has simply started to build a new home, illegally.
“It gets down to survival,” Morgal said. “The county has this idea that they’re very safety-oriented. Safety’s great when everybody’s got everything they need to eat and live and all that, but when you start getting into people needing a basic roof over their head, cardboard goes up.”
Privatt is not reverting to such drastic measures. She is slowly but surely working towards the day when she can move out of her trailer and back into a real home again. Her business may be gone, she said, but her spirit can’t be crushed.
“When you get socked down, you just get up and go again,” she said. “I guess I’m just a survivor.”
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