Fire Prevention Services, Inc., your property may be at risk
How Fire Districts are Violating
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, Joseph Diliberti, was away on vacation. He ended up losing his home because of it.
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 do so) 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.
Although we were not able to stop San Diego County from taking Joseph's home, we were able to force the Deer Springs Fire District to drop their contract with FPS because we threatened legal action. Therefore, we urge you to obtain legal counsel when challenging FPS or your local fire district over unfair clearance demands. Do not expect to get help from government officials.
Joseph Diliberti, a Vietnam veteran (US Marine Corps) and an iconic artist admired around the world, lost his home in rural East San Diego County because a local fire district abused its power under a questionable "weed abatement" ordinance.
Dan McAllister, the San Diego County 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 removed the natural landscape around his home. His was one of the few homes 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 many times, the company continues to be hired by numerous fire districts and departments throughout southern California.
Government Officials Looked the Other Way
Due to the $487 per month penalty, San Diego 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 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.
Nearly everyone we have dealt with, from the San Diego Rural Fire District fire chief, to the county tax collector, to the public at large 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 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, also refused to help.
Setting the Record Straight
Although the San Diego Rural Fire Protection District claimed 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 trespass 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. The ACLU wrote to the District making clear it was violating Joseph's civil rights.
Read our letter to the San Diego RFPD detailing the abuse of Joseph's and other's personal rights by Fire Protection Services.
Tried to Pay
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.
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.
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.
In another case, San Diego County charged a family $35,000 to clear their property in Julian, California.
Another Homeowner is Targeted
Benton Yue 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 needed to terminate their contract with FPS.
For the Record
February 12, 2014: We attended the February 12, 2014 Deer Springs Fire Board meeting to help Mr. Yue present his appeal.
March 13, 2014: The Deer Springs Fire Board concluded, "considerably more work was done (by FPS) that was authorized by the fire district," FPS did not complete the work as directed, and that the "situation doesn't seem just."
May 8, 2014: We informed the Board that their inaction was unacceptable and demanded several remedies.
May 30, 2014: The Deer Springs Fire District terminated their contract with FPS, but would not dismiss the abatement order. Benton eventually was forced to settle with FPS so he could move on with his life.
Benton Yue examining dried weeds that were supposedly "cleared" off his property by Fire Prevention Services the month before.
The Home Joseph Built
Over a period of several decades, Joseph hand built his home from the adobe soil found on his own property.
The adobe structures were filled with art and laughter.
This video provides a look into what Joseph created and what the County evenutally took away.
After the property was purchased from the County, the new owners bulldozed everything.
Joseph moved off his land and is now living with his family, far from the home he built over 30 years.
A Work of Art Through Clay
The main house.
A doorway window.
Joseph's treehouse annex.
Every wall became art.
Inside the treehouse, the tree lives.
Interviews with Joseph about his life, war, and his battle to save his home
Other Articles and Documents
A 1990 article in the LA Times about Joseph, Feat of Clay.