The Personal Cost of Fire Safety Laws Without Proper Oversight
Have you recieved a notice like the one below from Fire Prevention Services, Inc.? If so, your property may be at risk.
Fire Districts Violating Citizen Rights in Order to Avoid Responsibility
Some fire protection districts (like San Miguel Fire in San Diego County), in an attempt to save money, have contracted out their hazardous vegetation inspections to private contractors. One such contractor, Fire Prevention Services, Inc. (FPS), has been accused of roaming neighborhoods like a tow truck operator searching for vulnerable properties. In a clear conflict of interest, and with the approval of the contracting fire district, FPS identifies "violations," issues the abatement notice (to clear the vegetation), then does the abatement if the homeowner does not deal with the notice quickly.
We have dozens of cases in our files of homeowners who have been charged exorbitant fees for forced abatement actions. In one case described below, Fire Prevention Services, Inc. charged more than $27,000 to clear less than a half acre. They did so while the homeowner was away on vacation.
If you are issued an abatement notice from a private contractor, please read the information below to understand how vulnerable you are. Then we suggest you immediately write an objection (you only have 30 days after the notice) to the FIRE DEPARTMENT, copied to FPS. Demand an onsite inspection with you and a FIRE DEPARTMENT official. Do not allow FPS to come alone. And please send us a note and let us know about your situation.
OUR LAST EFFORT TO HELP A TARGETED CITIZEN
We are currently assisting Benton Yue who was charged more than $14,000 by FPS, with authorization from the Deer Springs Fire Protection District. FPS issued an abatement notice that required Mr. Yue to clear his "entire property" of 6.5 acres. No local or state law requires such extensive clearance.
You can read our January 7, 2014 letter to the District here, outlining how Mr. Yue's rights were violated and why the District needs to terminate their contract with FPS.
UPDATES: June 12, 2014: The Board considered the matter closed. We dropped our pending legal action. Mr. Yue has not been served with another bill by FPS for the questionable clearance operation.
May 30, 2014: The Deer Springs Fire District informed us through their attorney that they were terminating their contract with FPS.
May 8, 2014: We issued a letter from our attorneys to the Deer Springs Fire District informing them that we found the Board's inaction unacceptable and demanded several remedies.
March 13, 2014: The Deer Springs Fire Board reported back their findings. In brief they concluded that FPS did "considerably more work was done that was authorized by the fire district," FPS did not complete the work as directed, and that the "situation doesn't seem just." No decision was made about Mr. Yue's case.
February 12, 2014: We attended the February 12, 2014 Deer Springs Fire Board meeting to help Mr. Yue present his appeal. In an encouraging decision, the board approved the establishment of an investigative committee to look into the matter and will report back at the March 11, 2014 board meeting.
Benton Yue examining dried weeds that were supposedly "cleared" off his property by Fire Prevention Services the month before.
UPDATE on the Diliberti Case San Diego County & County Tax Collector Dan McAllister takes Joseph's home away during a public auction
March 31, 2014 Update:The theft of Joseph's land is finally complete. It was sold by San Diego Tax Collector Dan McAllister on March 19, 2014 for $42,000 to Karim Mansour.
February 1, 2014 Update: We talked to Joseph and he's doing well, although still sad over the loss of his home. He has not been back to his property in a very long time. At this point, the property situation with San Diego County is still unresolved. The County has NOT been able to sell it over the past few years because of the exorbitant fees attached. They are going to try to sell the property again at public auction this March. It will probably remain in limbo.
Joseph's future plans are still uncertain, but he said he'd love to travel to the Caribbean to start a new life.
2012 Update: San Diego County has continued to try to sell Joseph's land as fines and penalties climb. The county failed once again to find a buyer in 2012. Therefore, the land remains Joseph's by default.
March 2011 Update: With a minimum bid of $71,000, San Diego Tax Collector Tax Collector Dan McAllister was unable to attract any interest, much less buyers for Joseph's land during the public tax sale auction held at the San Diego Convention Center. The county's next move is to place the property on their internet auction sale in May, but we suspect it won't attract any buyers there either. Perhaps the county will actually end up losing on this and carry the property on their books for a long time.
As for Joseph, he would like to thank everyone who has offered their love and support throughout this struggle. The truth has spoken and enriched the lives of those who chose to listen. We feel sorry for those who could not and hid behind the excuse so many misguided bureaucrats and political figures have in the past, "We're just following orders."
San Diego County seizes property of US Marine over improper chaparral clearing
Excessive weed abatement policy threatens fire safety, nature, civil liberties, and private property rights
Joseph Diliberti, a Vietnam veteran (US Marine Corps) and an iconic artist admired around the world, has lost his home because a local fire district abused its power under a questionable "weed abatement" ordinance.
The San Diego Tax Collector forced Joseph out of his home of nearly 30 years by selling his property during a public auction in order to obtain payment on a $27,552 weed abatement charge (plus $30,000 in penalties and interest) for vegetation "clearance" work conducted in 2004. The area cleared was less than a half acre.
State law (PRC 4291) allows for such liens to compel property owners to pay for reasonable vegetation clearance work performed under an "abatement" order. However, the law is supposed to be applied in a fair and just manner. In Joseph's case, it wasn't. He neither knew about the ordered abatement (issued 2/19/04) nor was he present when the work occurred (3/4/04). He was away for several weeks visiting a friend when the contractor, Fire Prevention Services (FPS), entered his property without permission or adequate notice and unnecessarily hacked down the natural landscape around his home. His was one of the few in the area that survived the 2003 Cedar Fire.
At issue is that a government agency (San Diego Rural Fire Protection District) gave police power to a private contractor (FPS) to search for properties to clear vegetation, do the inspections, issue the violations, and do the work. This is a clear conflict of interest. FPS is no longer under contract with the fire district because of citizen complaints like Joseph's. FPS has a record of alleged abuses throughout the region. Although the courts have ruled against FPS's methods several times, the company continues to be hired by numerous fire districts and departments throughout mostly Southern California. Proper vegetation management around homes to reduce fire risk is critical. Defensible space regulations can play an important role in helping us understand how to improve fire safety in and around our communities. However, if abused as they were in Mr. Diliberti's case, public resentment and resistance can develop, making it difficult for fire officials to help improve fire safety. Due to the $487 per month penalty, the county said Joseph owed more than $65,000. This was about how much Joseph paid for his 3.7 acres of land nearly thirty years ago. According to a clerk at the County Tax Collector's Office, this was the biggest penalty she had ever seen. Regardless of the facts, the county has indicated Joseph had pay the entire amount or lose his home. A "payment plan" was available, but Joseph would have had to pay 20% of the total (approximately $13,000 plus interest) every year over five years.
Shackling Joseph with such a penalty is outrageous. The county's actions to take away a man's home over a damaging and improper vegetation clearance operation represents an egregious violation of individual rights.
Nearly everyone we have dealt with, from the San Diego Rural Fire District fire chief, to the tax collector, to the public, have all labeled what has happened to Joseph as unfair. However, because of the way the bureaucracy rolls along, just because an injustice is recognized, doesn't mean it will be corrected. No one in a position of authority came forward and recognized the need to solve the problem despite the fact that Joseph, and dozens of private citizens, have had their lives turned upside down by the abuse of power through the unfair enforcement of "weed abatement" regulations.
The office of San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, Joseph's representative, called us twice, expressing extreme displeasure that we had asked people to write her about the situation. Joseph sent a letter to Supervisor Bill Horn, a fellow US Marine, but Horn wrote back saying he couldn't do anything because Joseph lives in Jacob's district. Supervisor Greg Cox said the same. We never received a reply from Supervisors Roberts or Slater-Price. Assemblyman Joel Anderson's office did call us back, but nothing came of it. Congressman Duncan Hunter Jr. said this was a local matter and consequently he claimed he couldn't do anything about it.
Cal Fire, which is responsible for administering the state's clearance laws, refused to help correct the problem.
1. Although the San Diego Rural Fire Protection District says it notified Joseph by mail multiple times about the pending weed abatement in 2004, the district has acknowledged that they do not have confirmation that Joseph actually received any notices. Recognizing the inadequate notification process, the district now has face-to-face meetings with property owners. Considering the fact that the district, via a private company, was going to tresspass and seriously alter a citizen's property, every possible step should have been taken to make sure Joseph was properly informed. It wasn't and the district has thus far failed to acknowledge they made a mistake.
2. While some claim that Joseph is delinquent on his regular property taxes, here's the full story. When he tried to just pay his property taxes, the San Diego County Tax Collector's office told him he couldn't. He had to arrange to pay the entire amount, including the $25,550 lien. The tax collector's office told us the same thing during our investigations.
3. Joseph did take this matter to court but the court ruled against him. We strongly believe the ruling was unjust because his attorney failed to represent him properly and was ill suited for the job. Unfortunately, there is no transcript of the court hearing because the judge dismissed the court reporter. A more telling reflection of the problem Joseph faced is the fact that over the past decade Fire Prevention Services (FPS) has been sued 39 times concerning its forced weed abatement actions in San Diego County alone.
4. According to reports, FPS claims that 845 cubic yards of material were "remediated" on less than a half acre. That's 169 average dump truck loads or a mountain of material about 20 feet across and nearly 70 feet tall - all from less than a half acre?
Not an isolated event
Joseph's situation is not an isolated case. Dozens of similar abuses have been brought to our attention since we started looking into what happened to Joseph. For example, a couple in El Cajon were charged $5,340 by Fire Prevention Services to remove vegetation they had done in previous years for $300. They received the abatement notice just before going on vacation and didn't have time to take care of the problem. They left on their trip, figuring they would just pay for the abatement when they returned. The couple nearly lost their home before they decided they could no longer afford to fight the matter in court and ended up paying $41,000 because of fines and penalties to resolve the matter.
Letter to the Editor on above article (July 26, 2004)
Why not allow artist to live as he pleases?
Talk about people having nothing to do but complain. I read with increasing frustration the story of Iseppi Diliberti and the county's intrusion into what I feel are inalienable rights ("Man's 'artwork' deemed unfit habitation," News, July 12). Here is a self- sufficient, happy and extremely creative man being denied the right to live as he wishes simply because some neighbors have a problem with him living this way. With the exception of their understandable fear from the fire he uses (which could be taken care of by simply getting a permit) I read nothing in the story that should give his neighbors any cause for complaint.
Countless homeless people sleep in cardboard in parking lots and freeway overpasses (whether by their unfortunate lot in life or by laziness) and they get either pitied or ignored. Here a man takes care of himself on property he has owned since 1979 and he is getting hassled. I would complain to the government, but they seem to be the people at fault.
Joseph used to offer a variety of workshops and camps for kids so they could learn about art, friendship, and living wisely with nature. Eventually these events ceased because of complaints from neighbors. Joseph's property spreads out over 3.7 acres, so one wonders how much noise the children could make.