Codes, Damned Codes
Down at the county courthouse there's a file labeled The County of Humboldt v. Charles Garth and Does 1-25. It's a code violation case — but there's some dispute between the parties as to just exactly who's violating whose code.
On one side, there are the residents of a ferny, forested place they call Yee Haw up near Trinidad — landowner Charles Garth and the dozens of people he's been renting an assortment of oddball structures to. They live by a free-form, minimalistic, some would say anachronistic code that doesn't always conform to the tidy, plumbed, square-housed notion mandated by the larger society.
On the other side, there are the government officials charged with enforcing the zoning, health and safety codes that the larger society has embraced. These officials say Yee Haw is a public nuisance, and last November the county sued Garth and his tenants to make them vacate the property, clear out the dead cars and junk piles, and get the buildings, water and sewer systems permitted and up to county codes.
The Yee Haw residents protest that they're living lightly on the land and they're not bothering anybody. And, although it isn't part of the litigation, they're offended by the way, last July, the county sent a posse of law enforcement officers to Yee Haw to round everyone up before letting the environmental health and code inspectors on.
On the surface, it's a fairly cut and dried case — the county'll probably prevail in this one. But perhaps it won't be a concessionless victory. Some might say Yee Haw harks back in time toward a hallowed Humboldt custom — the leave-me-be one — while at the same time offering one solution to a growing Humboldt problem — homelessness, and very few low-income houses. Surely there's room for such a place?
Unless maybe it's just a sloppy camp.
July 26, 2007, a Thursday, started off with one of those typical, sharp-cold misty mornings that Humboldt County summers specialize in. But out at Yee Haw, events were about to happen that would make it one of the most unsettling of days, one the people who were living there at the time still talk about with indignation and dismay. Earlier this month, some of them described how they remember those events:
Just before 9 a.m. that day, Charles Garth walked down his driveway to the metal swing gate at the entrance to his property, which lies at the end of Quarry Road in the woods across the highway from Trinidad. Humboldt County Code Enforcement Officer John Desadier was supposed to be there to inspect the place for code compliance. They'd made the appointment that Monday. Fifty minutes passed. No Desadier. Garth gave up and started walking back down the road. Then he heard the rumble of diesel engines, and looking back he saw a Sheriff's SUV rounding the corner. And another and another and another. Seven of them, recalled Garth. They stopped, a bunch of deputies jumped out, and Garth said three of them rushed him, spun him around, searched him and demanded to see his ID. Then, not waiting for him to produce the ID, he said, they shoved a warrant in his face.
"They said, 'We're gonna cut the gate! We're gonna cut the gate!'" said Garth. "I said, 'Wait a minute, let me read it.'"
But he said they cut the lock on the gate, told him to stay there, and they "drove through, spitting gravel." Garth said he watched the deputies, along with code enforcement officers Desadier and Jeff Conner, spread out, following trails. Soon Garth said he heard aTHUMP THUMP THUMP — fist on hollow metal.
"Bunny" — she didn't want to give her her real name — said she was inside the big, purple school bus she called home, eating breakfast with her 5-year-old son and 8-month-old daughter. She heard shouting outside. Then someone was banging on her door. "I heard them yell, 'Sheriff! Come out!'" she recalled.
It took her by surprise. She knew code enforcement was coming that day. But she'd expected Desadier to walk around with Charles — "clipboard and a couple of guys." They wouldn't involve her.
Bunny gathered her baby onto her hip and pulled a curtain aside to peek out a window. She said she saw six deputies and two code enforcement officers outside. "One of the deputies had his gun out, clutched in both hands, low at his hip, but pointed up toward me," she said. "I thought that was odd." (Officer Desadier, in an interview a couple of weeks ago, said guns were out on the visit to Garth's place, but none were pointed at anybody.)
Bunny said she opened the door and said, "Put your gun down. I've got children in here. Put your gun down." She was "completely nerve-wracked," she said. "I was terrified."
She pulled her 5-year-old to her side, and then she said one of the guys pushed past her and went into the bus. Finally, she said, the deputies let her and her kids get their shoes and jackets on, and they were led to the gate to join Garth. There, she said, Conner told her she could leave if she wanted to; she just couldn't go back to her bus until the inspection was over. (Desadier confirmed, in his interview, that they did get everyone out of their houses and lead them to the gate, for "their own safety" as well as the inspectors', and that they did tell people they could leave.)
Bunny said she looked at Desadier and said, "You were invited here. This is absolutely out of control."
And then she did leave — walked straight to her neighbor's where she phoned up a local radio station. Soon her story was being told over the air.
The Yee Haw residents said the deputies then went to another place, where a young family lived. It's one of three actual houses on the property, and has a generous wood deck. Bunny and Garth said the deputies again pounded on the door, guns drawn, and that the couple inside came out with their terrified 6-year-old, who'd "never seen a gun before," said Bunny. (Desadier, again, said no guns were pointed at people). That family, too, was escorted to the gate.
Ben Kellogg, who lived in another bus nearby, said he heard the deputies "kick in someone's door," so he acted quickly. He drew up a big sign, black felt tip on white cardboard, that said, "Fuck Off Go Home," left the bus — leaving the door unlocked — and slipped into the woods. The deputies looked inside his bus, took a picture of the sign — which is on evidence with other photos in the court file — and moved on. The deputies then followed a trail past the big, communal garden, fed by water diverted from McConnahas Creek, and around a leafy bend where they came upon a yurt with a piecemeal wood-scrap porch.
Katy Evans was still in bed inside the yurt; she wasn't feeling well. Her 12-year-old son, Konane — it's Hawaiian — was also sleeping in. Her other three kids, ages 6, 10 and 14, weren't home. But she'd just woken up because she'd heard the ducks quacking in the pond — every time they get scared, they quack their heads off. And Star, her fluffy, caramel-colored dog, was barking. Then, she said, she heard someone shout, "Law enforcement! Come out of your house!"
She opened the door, saw the deputies, and stooped to grab Star's collar.
Evans said a deputy leaned over at the same time and pepper-sprayed the dog's face: Some of it got in Evans' eyes, too.
"I said, 'What did you do that for?'" Evans recalled.
She said the deputy asked her if anyone else was in the house.
"I said, 'Yeah, my son's sleeping,'" she said.
"And then he said something weird. He said, 'Who has the liberty of sleeping in these days?'" Evans said.
"I said, 'I will get my son,'" Evans said.
"And he said, 'No,'" she said.
Evans, who always has her cell phone handy, said she called a friend and asked him what to do. Her friend said they had to produce a warrant to search her place. She said so to the deputy who'd peppersprayed her dog, and she said he told her she had to come with them to the gate to see the warrant, because it was up there. She agreed, not wanting to be confrontational; people get hurt that way. But then, she said, the deputy started yelling at her son to get out of the house, and then she said he ran inside and grabbed Evans' moccasins — her "medicine boots" — and made her son put them on.
"I said, 'I really need to go in my house to get my son's shoes, and also I need my tobacco,'" Evans said.
She said the deputy wouldn't let her, so she tried to scoot past him, back into her house. She said he grabbed at her shorts — the kind full of pockets — and asked, "You have any weapons in there? Do you have any grenades, guns, knives, bombs?"
"Do I look like a person who would carry something like that?" she said she asked.
"And he said, 'Well, what would one look like?' Even my son thought that was funny."
They were herded to the gate. Soon, nearly everyone who was home at that time was there and, again, they were told they could leave if they wanted to. Then, said the Yee Haw residents, a guy from the county's department of environmental health showed up. "He looked like he didn't want to be there," said Garth. The health officer, the deputies and the two code enforcement officers moved off to begin inspecting the property. It took them about two hours, said the residents. Kellogg said he followed the inspectors, unseen in the woods, as they went in and out of structures snapping photos. At one point, he said, some deputies almost walked smack into his hiding place — Kellogg let out a loud "WHAH!" like a mountain lion, and the deputies turned off in another direction.
Evans said she finally got a look at the warrant, later that day. It was an inspection warrant to search for zoning code violations — unpermitted structures, excess junk, wastewater disposal issues, and so on — which they found in abundance.
But Evans and everyone who'd been there said they suspected the cops were really just looking for pot — which they didn't find. Why else the guns, the shouting, the heavies in flak jackets?
The county'slawsuit against Garth and his tenants charges them with creating a public nuisance and of unlawful business practices.
Desadier and his team found a host of code violations: unpermitted buildings, most without toilets or hookups to any kind of sewer system, buildings without approved water supply systems, graywater running from sinks and showers onto the ground, solid waste piling up, enough cars and car parts to warrant the classification of a "wrecking and salvage yard," people living in buses and trailers where it isn't permitted, too many tires piled up, and construction and repairs going on without permits.
In his declaration to the court, Desadier described a building with a wood deck as appearing to have been built "in a haphazard manner," and with a toilet attached to a sewage line that "appeared to go into the ground south of the building, but the area was covered over with black berries" that made it impossible to see if the leach field was working. He counted two working toilets on the property. He counted 20-plus vehicles "scattered about the property in various states of disrepair."
The county's complaint alleges that Garth had "engaged in unfair competition prohibited by California Business and Professions Code sections 17200-17208," by, basically, renting substandard housing for dirt-cheap ($250 a month) that he had not paid to get up to code and permitted.
The complaint states that the fine for unfair business practices, a violation of state law, is $2,500 per violation, and that the fine for violating county code is $1,000 per violation, per day. The county asked that the court order Garth to stop renting on his property, that he and his tenants abate the nuisance, and that they stop living there altogether until they'd done so and had obtained the required permits. The county asked that the court issue civil penalties of $2,500 per day for each violation, from four years back and into the future until the problems are fixed.
To get to Yee Haw, you get off at the Trinidad exit heading north on Highway 101 and instead of turning into town, you go right. Quarry Road's not far from there — but it is private, once you get to where the quarry is, and only residents who live beyond are permitted to pass. Yee Haw's at the end of the road. It's around about where a spur off the railroad used to come through from the old Trinidad depot, long gone now. The train came right up to Potato Rock, a gigantic lump of hard Franciscan greenstone, and hauled off hunks of it to build the jetties in Humboldt Bay in the 1890s. Now there's a hole, still being mined. The train also took redwood logs out of the area.
Charles Garth bought the property in 1986. In college he'd read E.F. Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, and he guesses it stuck. He drove into his new land in a bizarre, cream-colored big bus with a peaked cap riddled with little gothic arched windows made by an artist friend of his. There were a couple of old houses already on the property, and soon more dwellings appeared: buses, tents, the yurt.
Over the years, hundreds of people have rented from Garth. Some had run-ins with the law — custody disputes, often, and there was that time when a group of residents, war vets, wrapped another resident in duct tape because he was drunk and belligerent. But many were there because they wanted to live in the woods and grow vegetables, or because they were too poor to live in town, or because they liked the way you could hear the Coast Guard buoy chiming off Trinidad Head a few miles away and the sea lions barking, and that they could just pitch a tent on the ground or park their pooped-out bus, and have an instant family around them.
It was cheap, there were few rules — no guns, no ganja — they studied nonviolence, they danced around the Maypole in the spring and they often ate their meals together. And, yes, dead cars did accumulate — there were 52 there, at one time — and some pretty funky construction went on. But the county code people looked the other way until fairly recently.
Midmorning on a Friday earlier this month, Charles Garth and several of his remaining tenants were knocking about the property getting it ready for another code inspection. It might be an important visit: There was a hearing coming up that would decide whether or not they could keep living there while the lawsuit was active.
Desadier was expected sometime later that day. And already the placed looked markedly different from just a few months ago. Many of the residents — they'd numbered 33 last summer, including children — had moved out after the county cracked down. The rest, about a dozen including several children, had remained behind and begun cleaning the place up. Berry bushes were trimmed back. Most of the dead cars had been hauled to John's Used Cars and Wreckers for free recycling under the abandoned auto amnesty program.
This particular day, Doug Smith, his clothes filthy from outdoor work, was trying to jumpstart a battered old truck with the dubious aid of an equally battered little white car with a thundering muffler. Ben Kellogg, dressed in blend-in greens, was gathering up all the dead TVs, computers and other electronic junk for an upcoming e-waste recycling day; some of the stuff, like a lot of the cars, had been abandoned by previous tenants or, in many cases, illegally dumped off at the end of Quarry Road by random slobs. Katy Evans, in a green sweatshirt and orange skirt, was on her cell phone, trying to find out when Desadier was going to show up because she had to be in town after lunchtime to take her son Sky to the doctor.
Some of the residents gathered in the shifting sunlight between the house with the sprawling porch, the purple schoolbus and a tall clump of redwood trees shooting up from a huge stump and talked about the trouble with the county.
"It turns out, with code enforcement, anything you have that's not natural — not there on its own — and that you're not using immediately is automatically 'solid waste,'" said Garth. He sat on an upholstered bench seat, possibly pulled from a van, set in the red dirt. "You're allowed one cubic yard per parcel."
"The thing that's strange to me is that on Stumptown, a feeder road going north, they have way more gack in front of their houses," said Evans, standing nearby scooping food from a yogurt container with a spoon and waiting for a call back on her phone. Sky bounced a ball on the red duff then grabbed a hockey stick that leaned against a tree and whirled around, his long white-blond hair flying. "And everything here that's 'junk' has potential use — like car parts, and window shutters."
"I have a big driftwood chair, handmade," said Garth. His blues eyes, framed by graying curly brown hair and a floppy, blue-stitched tan hat, twinkled and looked indignant at the same time. "And I got specific: I asked Jeff Conner, 'Is that chair solid waste?' He said, 'Depends on how I look at it.' I pointed out toys: 'Are those gack?' He said, 'Maybe.' You're only allowed so much stuff, basically, unless you stick it in a shed. I think it's totally unfair."
"I personally think the codes should be changed," said Evans. "That's what my lawyer has been saying. The cop who pepper-sprayed my dog said, 'You shouldn't be living down here. It's substandard housing.' But I think, for homeless people, it's better than living in a doorway."
Garth said the county welfare department used to call him up and say, "We have a family living in a van; can they come stay at your place?" But that hasn't happened in quite a while, he said.
For the most part, Yee Haw's residents don't have high-paying jobs. Evans, a single mom, gets welfare. Smith makes drums, Garth sells firewood, Steve Scheideler — who had walked up the trail a while ago and stood listening — does construction, landscaping, hauling. (Another resident who wasn't home at the time because he was at work, Jim Smith, has lived there 19 years and is an advertising account executive for the Times-Standard.) Scheideler said he'd keep the place up better if he could afford it.
And yet to say people move to Yee Haw just because they're poor would be disingenuous. Two and a half years ago, Evans drove down from the mountains — she'd been staying at the Black Bear commune on the Salmon River — into Arcata, looking for another communal situation. "A guy at the bike shop said to me, 'You living in that van?'" she recalled, laughing. "Four kids, three dogs, two rats — we were pretty famous! The guy said, 'You should meet my dad!'"
His dad was Charles Garth; she's lived at Yee Haw ever since.
"I lived in Hawaii, and we had a lot of issues with code inspectors," Evans said. "A lot of us were just living under tarps. We were trying to live traditionally, and you can't really live traditionally surrounded by a box with electrical wiring."
It's hard work, though: chopping wood for heating and cooking, growing food, raising and schooling kids. "And a lot of the buses here are hippie-rigged, so you have to do a lot of maintenance," Evans said.
It's also not easy dealing with outside viewpoints. "I have a lot of judgment coming from different directions: my ex-husband, who doesn't think this is a good life for my kids; my mom; the school," Evans said. She homeschools two of her kids, but the other two go to school. "We're earthy people. We have ceremonies and sometimes I take them out of school for that, and it's called 'truancy.'"
Scheideler frets that the county has no affordable housing or jobs, while defending his desire to live in Trinidad. "Where do we get the money for the permits?" he asked. "I don't want to be a pot grower. I don't want to work at McDonald's — I'm sorry to be snooty. And I choose not to live in that society, to plug into their standards — I call it pop culture, the TV and the satellite. And where else can you open up your door and let your kids run free? There are no freaks coming up the road. It's safe here."
"This is Humboldt," said Garth. "We're back-to-the-landers. I've been here 22 years and nobody's gotten hurt, nobody's polluted. We've been safe and happy."
The Yee Haw residents have all kinds of theories, outside of code violations, as to why the county's cracking down on them.
"We're not good for the economy," said Garth. "We don't buy enough stuff. Our power bill last summer, when there were 33 people, was $55 a month. There's a rule: no heating with electricity. We use propane or solar. And Katy's got a wood stove."
"They're going to start developing that property behind us here, behind the quarry and all the way to Fox Farm Road, and I think this property is in an extremely strategic location," said Scheideler. "I think they want to build a road through here."
"Steve thinks they don't want to drive by a bunch of hippies," said Garth.
(The major-development theory riled this neighborhood 10 years ago, but all that's on the books today is an application for a four-way lot split in that area, said county planner Michael Richardson last week.)
Whatever — that still doesn't explain the dozen deputies who showed up in July pounding on doors. Some of the residents are fixated on the notion that they must've been looking for dope — after all, they reason, right after "raiding" Yee Haw the code enforcement unit went out to Redwood Valley on a code inspection visit and stumbled upon a major marijuana cultivation.
Desadier didn't show up that Friday after all. But the day before, sitting back at his desk behind the locked doors of the code enforcement office inside the Humboldt County Courthouse, he had explained what to him seems like a very simple case: Charles Garth's property is out of compliance with county code. Period.
"Charles has a piece of property," said Desadier. "Charles likes to have people live there. Which is all well and good. But ... if you're going to have a campground, if you're going to have people living on your property, you have to have proper sewage disposal, you have to have proper disposal of garbage and solid waste and you have to have structures that are built within code, that we deem safe. So, that's where we come at odds."
Desadier is bemused by the Yee Haw residents' suspicions that the county might be bearing down on them now for reasons other than code violations. It's like this, he said: Last July, after more than 10 years as a Humboldt County deputy sheriff, he was transferred to code enforcement — which is also a law enforcement arm of the county. The department had been chronically understaffed for years, and Jeff Conner, staggering under a mountainous caseload, handed Desadier a bunch of cases. Garth's was one of them: In 2000, someone complained about his place to the planning and building departments, and someone in the county wrote twice to Garth but got no response, so the case was referred to code enforcement. But it got back-burnered.
"On July 9, I was handed the followup," said Desadier. "I went to Quarry Road on the 12th. And I went back out there on the 17th." Both times, Garth — whom Desadier thinks is "a fine individual" — wasn't there but some hostile strangers were.
"They didn't want to tell us anything," he said. "They wouldn't tell us where Charles was. They were lying to us, telling us they didn't know how to get hold of him."
They told him to fuck off. One guy was tatted up — could've been a parolee, for all Desadier knew. And during his years as a deputy sheriff, he'd seen all kinds of criminal activity in that area. So the third time he went out there he brought backup. And, no, they weren't looking to bust people for growing pot, he said.
"It's an officer safety issue," he said. "There were 30 of them. As far as the gun incident goes ... it's people's perceptions. If people are ordered to do something — we don't know who's in the building. We want to get everybody outside."
Desadier said the officer at "Bunny's" place "was telling the female to come out, and his gun was pointed downward, towards the ground."
Besides, it isn't unusual for him or any other inspector — building, health — to take backup into rural Humboldt. And, yeah, often that is because of the potential for a cultivation discovery. "I mean, think about it, what's the most prevalent thing we've got going on in Humboldt County now? You've got pot grows. So what happens if I go walking down a road and I'm by myself, and you've somebody — it happened, we had an officer-involved shooting. You had a guy, a Mexican, with 500 pounds of dope. If that was me, walking into a cultivation-type place, and I'm one guy, and they've got 500 pounds, at $3,000 a pound — you're looking at how much money? Is that worth killing me for, dumping me some place, then you go ahead and cultivate it and get the heck out of dodge by the time they find my body?"
Of course, if they'd found pot at Garth's, they'd have had to deal with it, Desadier said. "I am a law enforcement officer," he said. (He would have had to order up a criminal search warrant first, signed by a judge.) "And, unfortunately, by happenstance, it appears that people who are into growing dope also don't get permits. People who build without a permit — if they don't get caught, they don't have to go pay a permit fee."
But Desadier said he looks upon Garth and others like him — for there are many, he said — with compassion. They remind him of the past.
"Humboldt County has a varied history," he said. "People moved here after WWII and moved out here to seek fame and fortune. Timber was going great guns ... so, people from all walks of life came to Humboldt County and settled here. If you look at where these people came from — my parents were from Louisiana. People back in the South that came out here, they don't want a bunch of people telling 'em what to do. You could build out here without a lot of oversight. And over the course of many, many years we've progressed and, you know, we no longer have teepee burners, we're more environmentally conscious of what goes on, and consequently that has put a lot of people in the county at odds with various things."
Desadier, who's 53 and grew up in Humboldt, said he remembers seeing people build tarpaper shacks in McKinleyville — and later seeing nice houses built up around them. The people in the shacks couldn't afford to keep up. "I call them property-poor people," he said.
Michael Richardson,a senior planner for the county, was the guy who actually first dealt with the complaints about Garth's property in 2000. He can't say who complained — that's confidential. But what concerns him about Garth's situation is it shines a light on a bigger problem he said the county's dealing with right now as it updates the general plan: homelessness and affordable housing needs.
"There's a reason we have a lot of violations, of people converting their garages into residences, or parking RVs on property, or schoolbuses," he said. "And that is, there is an unmet need for shelter. "
He said 10 percent of the zoning violation complaints his department receives involve people living in RVs and the like. Richardson said perhaps the general plan's updated housing element, expected to be completed by August 2009, could include more "special occupancy park" areas, where living in RVs is permitted. A zone change in 1998 introduced the SOP concept to the county to "help nomadic households," he said, but the places zoned for SOPs were limited. Garth's property is zoned agricultural/timber production and can't have an SOP, said Richardson. Maybe that could change.
But even if it did, Richardson said SOP permits, issued by the state, are really hard to get. And Garth would still need to deal with the multitude of other code violations, which all cost money.
There's another option : Garth could try for an owner-builder permit. Last week, by phone, long-time county resident Maggie Herbelin explained how that permit came about in the 1970s when the back-to-the-landers were moving into the woods, mostly in Southern Humboldt, and building their houses "in very individualistic manners." When the county tried to crack down on them, they rebelled. Herbelin was a member of the local United Stand Study Committee, which formed to look at alternative building styles. "There were hearings at the state level to allow people to build houses to their own code," she said. She remembered a blind woman complaining about being required to put in a mirror above her sink. Others asked that they be allowed to live in temporary structures, like buses, while they got their permanent buildings built. In the end, the county loosened up its restrictions by creating an alternative set of regulations for owner-builders, called Class K.
But even under an owner-builder permit, one can't let untreated graywater, for instance, which could have fecal matter, pathogens or chemicals in it, run onto the ground.
Last Tuesday in court, at a preliminary injunction hearing, Judge Timothy Cissna denied the county's motion to prohibit Garth and his tenants from continuing to live at Yee Haw for now, saying it was based on a "quite outdated" inspection. The judge did grant the county's request that no further development take place on the property without permits.
After the hearing, Garth's attorney, Daniel Kosmal, said it was "good news temporarily."
"We're doing a lot to get the property up to compliance," he said. "But they're asking for damages that could easily eclipse the value of the property."
If that happens Garth likely will lose the place.
A couple of weeks ago, while walking around Yee Haw, Garth said he'd do what he could to comply. "We're only zoned for two houses," he said. "If they let me, I'll go down to two houses." One, he knows, is permitted already; the other, built before codes came into place in the 1960s, could be grandfathered in. And one of the septic systems had just passed inspection. But much costly work lay ahead.
Garth paused by the garden. "I should be pruning the apple trees and planting the garden," he said. "Instead, I'm scrapping vehicles and going to the county all the time. But I took a little faith and bought some onion sets. You know why I did that? I was feeling really depressed. My lawyer told me things were going bad. And getting your hands in the dirt, gardening, settles your soul."