Richard Johnson, 79, said he’s living in an America he doesn’t recognize anymore after tussling with the county over what he says is an infringement on his property rights.
The owner of 5 acres of land in Shingle Springs that he’s owned since 1965, Johnson said his plan was to eventually build a home here. But like a lot of people, he was hurt when the economy took a nosedive. In 2007, he lost his business handling Internet-based reservations for people visiting Hawaii. At the time he was living aboard a boat in Hawaii and traveling back and forth between the islands and the mainland.
In 2008, Johnson moved back to the county on a part-time basis and began clearing the land for a house site. But it turned out to be a bigger job than he thought.
“I didn’t know it would cost this much,” he said, saying that he has spent $60,000 so far clearing out the trees and other vegetation while living in an RV and fifth wheel parked on the property. He said he actually only lives there during the summer and the rest of the time he spends with his son in Bay Point or in Hawaii.
But his plans for the property abruptly changed on April 5 when Jim Wassner, senior code enforcement officer for El Dorado County, paid him a visit.
Johnson claims Wassner told him, in effect, to get off his own property because he was in violation of different building and zoning codes.
“It’s kind of a shock. On what you think is your land, you paid for and a county official says you can’t live here, camp here, stay here overnight, or store items until you pay us a permit fee of $40,000 or $50,000, but could go higher depending on the kind of house that’s built. If you’re an elderly person, and a vet, and a person talks to you like that, you get riled,” he said.
Johnson said the county only got wind of his living on the property after a neighbor complained about a possible septic tank spill. The neighbor apparently thought it came from his fifth wheel or RV unit. He said she may not have understood that neither has a septic tank.
Johnson said refuse water and waste are stored in tanks underneath the units until they are emptied commercially with each unit having both a gray and a black tank. He said he uses the water from the gray tank to water his plants. The refuse in the black tank has to be pumped out with it last being pumped out about three years ago.
“It is just not a problem in reality … but to some in the county it is a big deal,” Johnson said.
Johnson claims his neighbors didn’t smell a spill from a septic tank. Instead he believes the foul odor came from a plant called Viburnum titus. A plant that at the end of its bloom has an odor variously described as resembling that of a septic tank or skunk.
“That’s what they were smelling,” he said. “This is a strange group of events all due to this plant that smells like poop.”
“My situation is that I live on Social Security,” he added. “I have some savings but am living on my successes of the past and am faced with a county enforcer telling me I have to move my RV and fifth wheel off the property. If not, I’ll be guilty of a misdemeanor and they can throw me in jail or confiscate my possessions.”
“There is a culture in the county of honest, good, hard-working people doing tasks that they know are wrong,” he said. “I felt this when I was talking to county staff regarding fees. Generally you find that most people have no idea that a county official can go on your property and tell you, you can’t use it unless you pay them a fee. And I’m talking tens and tens of thousands of dollars … I’m looking for a voice that says this is wrong. We’ll fix it. This is not how we treat elderly people, those who’ve been in the service. I feel violated and bullied.”
On the other side of the issue are county ordinances meant to protect the public. Wassner said this is a straight up case of zoning and building code violations.
“You can’t have vehicles on property that doesn’t have a septic system unless it’s a hardship case where the person already has a home on the property or is building a home,” he said. “There are ways to get a permit but it doesn’t look like he meets any of the requirements.”
The notice to correct originally gave Johnson a deadline of the middle of May, listing three different misdemeanor violations: having a trailer and motor home occupied without the required permits; lack of an approved septic system; and storage of RV’s on a parcel zoned RE-5 in violation of the zoning ordinance.
Johnson has since asked for a year’s delay in code enforcement to sort out his alternatives, but Wassner informed him he either has to get a permit or remove the units from his property in the next 60 to 90 days.
In the meantime, Johnson has contacted a lawyer.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.