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A year ago, Ourn Lun, a grandmotherly 60-year-old, was evicted from a piece of city-owned land where she and a group of fellow Cambodian refugees had grown crops like bitter melon, red peppers and green beans in peaceful obscurity for nearly three decades.

The refugees, all of them poor, had been farming the land without legal permission. Since they were evicted they’ve hoped to return to the parcel, tucked away at the end of a southeastern San Diego cul-de-sac in Mountain View. But zoning restrictions made that expensive and difficult.

Three weeks ago, San Diego’s City Council passed rules that make it easier to start community gardens, clearing the way for the refugees to return.

But now they’re staring at a new problem. The city has told the farmers they can’t lease the land until it’s been cleared of all the dead crops, weeds and trash there — debris that accumulated because the farmers were forced to leave. One estimate has put the cleanup cost at $20,000, and it’s not clear who will pay it.

The legal responsibility for cleaning up the land sat with San Diego’s largest social service nonprofit, the Neighborhood House Association, which had leased it since 1970. The nonprofit runs a senior nutrition center on nearby land it also rents from the city. For nearly three decades, it looked the other way as the refugees happily and quietly grew food on the vacant parcel.

Last summer, on a month’s notice, the nonprofit evicted the farmers. The Neighborhood House was negotiating a new city lease and had agreed to give up the farm parcel.

The organization’s agreement with the city required the nonprofit to clear the land before returning it. The nonprofit knew it had to do that. In an interview last November, Luis Gonzalez, the Neighborhood House’s director of community affairs, said that’s why his organization evicted the farmers. The land had to be returned to its “original state,” he said then.

But the nonprofit never did the work. The city’s real estate department accepted the vacant parcel in its decrepit condition and in April granted the nonprofit a new long-term lease for the adjacent property.

And now with its new 25-year lease in hand, the Neighborhood House said it was no longer responsible for clearing the land. Gonzalez said Monday the nonprofit had complied with everything the city requested.

“Once we did that transition to the city, they accepted the property. Our lease has been signed as of March,” he said. “That’s not our property anymore.”

That’s left it up to the city and the farmers who want to reoccupy the land to figure out how to clean it up.

Phal Chourp, a Cambodian leader who’s been working with the farmers, said the organization she works for, Victoria House, will have to consider whether the expense of paying for the cleanup is worth the short-term lease the farmers are likely to get from the city.

Jim Barwick, the city’s real estate director, acknowledged that the Neighborhood House should have cleaned up the land. But he said his department did not force the nonprofit to do so because the organization provides benefits to the public.

The city could take the Neighborhood House to court to try to force it to clear the land now, he said, but is trying to find another solution. The farmers will have to contribute somehow, he said.

“Really what we’re trying to do is work out a solution here where everybody walks away feeling good,” he said. “We’ll get a community garden there.”

Last week, a city real estate agent met with Neighborhood House officials and Chourp, the Cambodian representative, to discuss the land.

At that meeting, representatives from the nonprofit said they estimated the cleanup would cost $20,000 — a price the Neighborhood House was unwilling to pay.

But later Monday, after voiceofsandiego.org raised questions about the Neighborhood House’s responsibility, the organization changed its mind.

In a follow-up call Monday afternoon, Gonzalez said the nonprofit would be willing to contribute at least part of the cost of the cleanup, though he didn’t know how much. He said the Neighborhood House wanted to be a good community steward and help the farmers regain use of the property.

“We’re willing to contribute and work with the city on the cleanup process. We will do that,” Gonzalez said. “That’s probably the best kind of help we can give.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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