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Tuesday, Nov 05 2013 06:00 AM

Family struggles with city's order to abate deceased mom's home

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Frank Cerbantez and Jessica Pimentel are members of the family that owns the property on which a structure has been identified for demolition by the city. They are requesting more time to deal with its destruction. Gregory D. Cook / Tehachapi News

This structure, in the 100 block of East "J" Street, has been declared a blight by the city. Gregory D. Cook / Tehachapi News

This structure, in the 100 block of East "J" Street, has been declared a blight by the city. Gregory D. Cook / Tehachapi News

This structure, in the 100 block of East "J" Street, has been declared a blight by the city. Gregory D. Cook / Tehachapi News

Imagine coming home one afternoon to find two men standing on your property, discussing the demolition of a house passed down through your family since the 1940s.

This is what happened to Jessica Pimentel in early September. The two men were the city's Code Enforcement Officer Michael Gruett and Tehachapi Heritage League representative Charles White, who is also chairperson of the Tehachapi Planning Commission.

"When I asked them 'can I help you,' they said 'no,'" Pimentel recalled. "Then they told me they were looking to demolish the house."

Pimentel also said she learned of a Notice to Abate letter sent to a P.O. Box in her deceased mother's name. The box is listed as the mailing address for the property at 125 E. "J" St., the street along which the family owns a block and a half.

The P.O. Box is rarely checked by the family, Pimentel admitted, but she said nothing was ever posted on the house in question, and no one ever came to her door to talk to her about the property. Neither did city officials talk to any of Pimentel's family, she said.

"She came to me at the eleventh hour," said paralegal Barb Reynolds.

Reynolds drew up paperwork to apply for a 30-day extension to the abatement order the night before the tenth day, she said. Although the request cited a few supporting arguments, Reynolds honed in on one in particular.

"There was a fundamental breakdown of due process," the paralegal said, citing the 14th Amendment. "They were not granting her any time to do anything."

Despite multiple attempts, Gruett could not be reached for comment before publication.

City Manager Greg Garrett explained the city's reasoning.

"The family has not been vigilent in taking care of the property," he said in a phone interview. "It has become a serious blight problem for the city."

Garrett said serious crimes happen around the property, and that continually getting calls out to the vacant house has become a "drain" on city resources.

"We've had a significant number of neighbors call and complain," Garrett said.

The Order to Abate lists five actions to be taken to abate the nuisance: clearing debris and discarded items from the yard, acquiring a building permit to bring the house up to code, repairing the property to bring up to code, clearing the inside of the structure of items to allow accessibility, and restoring sanitary facilities like the barthroom fixtures and surfaces.

"It does not take any money to keep a clean yard," Garrett said.

Pimentel said the family has worked toward these requirements by clearing out the house and surrounding property and boarding up the windows and doors.

"But we just need more time," she said. She added that the house is checked on every day, at least twice a day. She also said the house is free of squatters and that trespassers are an occasional problem, but no one continues living in the house because she does call the police.

The abatement order states that in lieu of bringing the house up to code, the family may obtain a permit and complete the required work to demolish the structure, remove the debris and cap the sewer.

The letter also states, "In the event of failure to abate the nuisance entirely, the city may do so at the sole cost and expense of the property owner."

Reynolds said the city could then put the expenses on the property in the form of a lien, and if the family did not pay, the city could then seize the property.

"[The city will be] charging more than it would ordinarily cost to get that thing done," Reynolds said, referring to razing the building. "They're generating income, and they're saying they won't recognize her appeal because the property is not in her name."

Technically, all the family's property along East "J" Street is still in Pimentel's mother's name, but Pimentel said she has been paying the taxes for the past few years and has kept them current. She also said it will cost her a couple thousand dollars to transfer the house at 125 E. "J" St. and her own home into her name. Currently out of work, Pimentel said the expense is out of the question for some time.

Reynolds said, "The question becomes, if she gets the property transferred into her name, then will the city leave the property alone?"

The paralegal added that Pimentel is the only heir and only beneficiary of her mother.

Garrett said the city has decided to work with the family and give them more time to meet the code standards.

"We have decided to work with the property owners," he said. "We want them to do it and we want them to do it right."

When informed of Garrett's statement, both Pimentel and Reynolds said it had not been previously communicated to them.

Pimentel also produced an email she sent to Greutt on Oct. 14, from which she received no reply. She wrote him again three days later, and still got no answer. She said that is the last time she tried to contact him.

As reported in the Sept. 17 edition of the Tehachapi News, the Kern County Board of Supervisors announced plans to ramp up its blight reduction program; but Garrett said the city has no similar plans.

"We've had a code enforcement officer for some time," he said. "[Blight reduction] is certainly not our first priority, but it is a priority of ours...The City of Tehachapi has a responsibility to its residents to make sure [codes] are being followed."

The city manager said the city prefers to work "quietly, behind the scenes" with residents whose property is not up to code.

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