Remember that old saying, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you?”
That might be a good description of some people’s feelings in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — specifically on Bethel Island and other parts of a proposed Peripheral Canal route.
There has been a lot of mistrust of state and federal authorities over the years, especially when the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) began taking steps to survey potential canal routes in late 2008. This feeling only got stronger when the Legislature pushed through an $11 billion water bond package last year, set to go before voters in November. While it does not specifically cover the canal, the bond package is seen as key to moving the canal concept forward.
Now some homeowners say they have run afoul of Contra Costa County. The county, they say, has been assessing excessive fines and fees on properties near the likely canal routes — often for older buildings they say have all the proper permits. The ultimate goal, some say, is to drive down property values in preparation for any eminent domain actions.
“I didn’t quite put it together until I saw a map of the Peripheral Canal,” said attorney Stephen Gizzi, of the Benicia-based firm Gizzi & Reep, who is representing one couple in a dispute with the county. He added, “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but at some point you start saying ‘That’s what you’re doing, but what is this really about?’ That’s the only thing that makes sense.”
One of the proposed ideas for the Peripheral Canal includes a huge tunnel to ferry water underground through the Delta. Two of three proposed routes for the tunnel directly cross Bethel Island. A third runs just to the west, over neighboring Jersey Island.
But Contra Costa County, along with four other Delta counties, is on record opposing the water bond and the canal. Several legislators from the area have also come out against both.
Many who’ve followed the canal idea for years think the more likely route lies well to the east, running near Stockton. In March, a federal judge consolidated 150 lawsuits from residents who have denied requests by the DWR to come on their property. Attorney Dante Nomellini Sr., who represents some of these plaintiffs, said the letters sent to residents were “excessive” in the kinds of access they asked residents to sign off on, and that efforts by the agency afterward have been “heavy-handed.”
Meanwhile, the county supervisor representing the Bethel Island area said he was behind the stepped up code enforcement, and it had nothing to do with the canal.
“In previous years, the county has not been as aggressive in enforcing its codes, and an attitude developed in certain parts of the county that they can do whatever they can,” said Federal Glover, who was first elected in 2000. “When I took office, at the request of residents wanting to clean up their neighborhoods, I encouraged our code enforcement officers to start enforcing those codes more diligently. Of course, this meant that many people, who sort of were neglected in the past, thought that the county was ‘picking’ on them when all we were doing was enforcing the law.”
Gizzi’s clients are Clark and Karla Fratus. They’re part of a group of dozens of people who say the county has been going after them for frivolous or made-up code violations. The group often meets to discuss their cases, and also to show up at Board of Supervisors meetings.
The couple has been fighting Contra Costa County over $12,900 in fines levied against them for two structures on the property. The county says the buildings are not properly permitted and violate restrictions on building in the floodplain of the low-lying island. The Fratuses have documents showing the buildings were properly permitted when they were built — in 1959 and 1964, long before the 1987 flood-plain restrictions, and should have been grandfathered in.
Gizzi — who is the Fratus’ third attorney on the case — said that he’s been through a number of surreal proceedings with the county. He said the county has repeatedly rejected the Fratus’ contrary evidence or engaged in improper procedures. A Nov. 16 hearing with the county Building Department, he said, was overseen by the Department’s head, Jason Crapo — who was also the person who submitted the original fines.
The county argues that it doesn’t matter what the permits say if the buildings are not included as residences on the property deed. Karla Fratus, who lives in Livermore, bought the property in 2005 as an investment. The county claims she sought to rent out the ground floors of at least one of the structures as rental units, in violation of the terms of the deed.
Meanwhile, the county also said that ordinances state that appeals should not be filed with the local building department but taken directly to federal superior court. Eric Dukes is a Bethel Island resident who has become something of a full-time activist on the issue, said the court option isn’t really viable for a lot of people.
“They [county officials] control the outcome of every hearing,” Dukes said. “If they tell you you’re guilty, you have to go to superior court and you’d better bring $30,000.”
There’s also the cultural nature of the area, which has a strong libertarian streak. Dukes often sends out faxes to journalists and elected officials, signed at the bottom with the slogan “The Mouse that Roared.” Online postings about the canal often come attached to user names that display disdain for the federal government or the United Nations.
Gizzi and others have described the Delta region, and Bethel Island in particular, as a “frontier.” A maze of sparsely populated islands—many, like Bethel, lying several feet below sea level and dependent on levees for their survival—it’s difficult to navigate by car or boat for anyone not familiar with the area. While it’s right next to the urban Bay Area, it has little in common with it.
There are other factors to consider as well.
One is regional antagonism. Many Delta residents—and many northern Californians in general—probably wouldn’t much care if Los Angeles and the farming empires of the Central Valley dried up and blew away. To these people, the Peripheral Canal is a repeat of the Owens Valley a century ago — a scheme to rob them of their water and charge them for the privilege.
Then there’s the boom-bust cycle. During the recent housing boom, lots of new buildings popped up in Delta communities like Oakley, Brentwood and Discovery Bay, as well as on more isolated Delta islands. Now with the bust hitting local budgets hard, cities and counties across the country have stepped up code enforcement as a way to increase revenues, often working down a backlog of inspections on buildings constructed during the boom.
Dee Migrant is another local resident in a dispute with the Contra Costa County. She owns a marina on the Clifton Court Forebay, near Byron, south of Bethel Island and near all of the proposed tunnel routes. In 2006, she said, the county sent her a $6,000 storm-water assessment fee, something she found inexplicable. On appeal, she got this reduced to $519. In the meantime, she’s been fighting the county on several other assessments against her, based on storage units and other structures on the property.
She also sees the canal’s fingerprints on these disputes. But Migrant concedes: “I’ve been here 40 years, and Contra Costa County has always been a pain.”
Still, Oakley City Councilman Bruce Connelley said enforcement seems to have rapidly escalated over the last three to five years. While he conceded he didn’t “have any facts” that directly connected the counties actions with the canal, there is a lot of suspicion that there has been pressure coming down on the county from state officials.
“For code enforcement to be so intense, they had to be told to go do this,” Connelley said.
He’s been in contact with numerous citizens, including Dukes, Migrant and the Fratuses. Even while noting there’s probably some need for code cleanups on the island, he said the county has been very inflexible in dealing with these people.
And to some extent, he’s taken on their cause, even though it’s not his job. Residents of the unincorporated island have long resisted any talk of incorporating them into nearby Oakley, but Connelley said their independent nature may have played against them.
“It sounds like now some people are changing their minds,” Connelley said. “They would have local representation and local control, rather than having to go all the way to Martinez [the county seat] to fight a battle where they’ve been misled and abused.”